Secrets of Success For WVU Defense

Secrets of Success For WVU Defense

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. —  We’re a nation of looking for shortcuts and secrets. Proof of that is no further away than the ad spaces in your web browser or on your smart phone apps, which promise “One Weird Trick To”  do whatever. Or “The secret to making millions in” real estate, pharmaceutical sales or the latest fad item.

With that in mind, it should be no surprise that a topic of conversation at West Virginia’s mid-week football interviews was the defensive success that the Mountaineers have had against Texas Tech the past couple of years. Against one of the most prolific offenses in the nation, the Mountaineers have allowed just 21.5 points over the past two seasons, and made the Red Raider offense one-dimensional for long stretches. So, what magic elixir has been employed? Mountaineer defensive coordinator Tony Gibson shared his thoughts on two overall reasons, if not on the individual tactics.

“The way [Texas Tech] was built was four wide, throw it, where we could match up. I think that’s what we are built for, being that the spur is that hybrid guy or the nickel guy or whatever you want to call it,” Gibson explained. “It allows us to play coverage, to be more aggressive. That’s part of it. I think the other part of it is that two or three years ago offensively we were almost [exactly] what they were.”

So, no exotic schemes or tactics? Certainly there were some tweaks put into place specifically for the Red Raiders, but much of it comes down to good matchups, and the fact that WVU ran a similar offense and thus understood much of what Tech was trying to do? Perhaps, but there’s also another reason — one that Gibson alluded to in later comments. The Mountaineers haven’t had to worry a great deal about Tech’s running game, which has allowed WVU to play a variety of different looks against the pass. From all out blitzes to dropping eight defenders into pass coverage, the Mountaineers have been able to focus almost exclusively on slowing the passing game. The Red Raiders had just 34 rushing yards a year ago, and while they did have 179 the year prior, it required 42 carries to get there. That was 42 times that future NFL quarterback Patrick Mahomes didn’t throw the ball — a victory in itself.

“Tony has done a great job defending these guys, whether it’s our scheme or  him having a bead of what’s going on or our players matching up well with them,” head coach Dana Holgorsen summarized. “I think it’s a combination of all of it.”

Now, though, Tech has a running game.  A good one. So while Gibson still has a good blueprint to work from, it might be like trying to build a boathouse to park a car in.

“It changes a little bit, because you have to be leery of when to get after this quarterback and when to drop eight because they are different now,” he said. “They will run split zone and some tug sweep. The tug is different for us, we haven’t seen that this year. They are a zone stretch [run] team. Their backs are a little different, and they use them all.”

Fans looking for a repeat of West Virginia’s defensive dominance a year ago need to understand that Tech’s ability to execute in both the running and passing games make them much like this year’s Mountaineer offense. The difference in personnel between last year and this also make a big difference. WVU is just now getting its best 11 on the field, and those players are still learning to work together in game situations. There are encouraging signs from the TCU game, but this isn’t likely to be another shutdown.

“People are going to get yards, but what we have to do is win the big plays, and we still aren’t doing that,” Gibson said. “That’s the frustrating part.”

“None of that is going to carry over. I can assure you that,” Holgorsen added. “We have to look at what they do now. They have done some things different. They are doing some things different. They are in a much better frame of mind. We need to be ready to roll.”