Negative Plays A Positive for WVU Defense
MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — It seems only fitting that the tables should be turned after West Virginia was thrown for a loss by Hurricane Florence’s intrusion into its 2018 football schedule, forcing cancellation of Saturday’s game at North Carolina State, which allows us to take a look at an unexpected characteristic of the Mountaineer defense that has developed this season.
That, of course, would be having developed the ability to throw opposing offenses for a loss.
A year ago, the Mountaineers defense had what was a bit better than an average season for them in tackles for a loss with 85.5, which figures out to 6.55 per game, while causing 315 minus yards.
Over the past decade, they have averaged 80 tackles for a loss per year of 286 yards.
What they did last season ranked them 44th in the nation, which is just about in the top third.
This year, in two games they have 20 tackles for losses to rank eighth in the NCAA behind Mississippi State, Nebraska, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Miami, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.
The count can be questioned, but not what really is going on.
In fact, the mad scientist behind the WVU defense which is more unorthodox than ever with small linebackers behind three huge down defensive linemen, is Tony Gibson, the veteran defensive coordinator, and he had the count different.
“I think it was 21 TFLs; wasn’t it? No, 21.5 actually,” he said.
Whatever. It’s a lot.
“In Game 1 (against SEC opponent Tennessee) I was shocked that we had 12 coming out of that one,” Gibson admitted.
But after he looked at the film and saw what they had done, he changed his goals for his defense.
“Then, my expectations were set pretty high for the guys,” he admitted.
In truth, it started right from the first snap when nose guard Kenny Bigelow Jr., the quick yet mountainous graduate transfer from USC, broke through and not only buried the Volunteer quarterback but knocked the ball loose for a 10-yard loss.
“The penetration we’re getting up front and playing with fresh bodies, I think that’s a big part of it. I think the stat is out of the 21.5 we have – if I’m not mistaken – has come from 14 different guys, or something like that,” he said.
The WVU stat sheet shows 13 players owning at least a part of a tackle for a loss, but why quibble over one play.
“That’s pretty impressive for that stat. We have a couple of DBs (defensive backs) in the mix as well for getting TFLs. That’s good thing on screen plays and some different things like that. Usually, (redshirt junior linebacker) David (Long Jr.) had to get them all by himself, but everybody is contributing now.”
Indeed, once upon a time the tackling machine that is David Long did make most of the tackles for a loss, leading the team with 16.5 last year despite missing the first four games. His absence allowed the season total participants to reach to reach 21, but that was in 13 games as compared to the 13 who have already made a TFL in just two games this year.
This season Long is one of five players already with two or more tackles for a loss and doesn’t mind the help at all.
“We have depth at the defensive line,” Long explained. “We’re rotating them in and out. I think that’s good for the defense.”
Why is that so good? Fresh bodies, bodies ready to go full speed, for when you ask Long what is the No. 1 asset necessary in making tackles for minus yardage, he offers a two-word answer.
“Just straining,” he said.
That may be a bit of an oversimplification, considering the time put into creating the defensive schemes and blitzes and the practice time put in to carry out those schemes, but certainly it’s a part of it.
Jabril Robinson, the graduate transfer that has smoothly moved in at defensive tackle, is from Clemson and therefore has some idea of what makes good defense and he has a slightly different take than Long on the key to such an attacking defense.
“Coach Gibby, he’s the key,” he said. “He’s a guy who knows what he wants. He uses who we are. We’re quick, a real quick defensive line, so why not use it?”
That has led him to undersized linebackers who can get around and big, quick D-linemen and then a number safeties who play like linebackers in defensive backs bodies.
The result has been a much improved defense which is attacking harder than ever.