The Cause And Effect Of WVU’s Defensive Struggles
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Everyone involved with the Mountaineer football seems to have received some degree of criticism for the two-game losing streak at the end of the regular season that killed West Virginia’s dreams of playing in the Big 12 championship game.
From head coach to the officials, all were blamed.
But the sharpest barbs were directed at the WVU defense, which gave up a total of 104 points and 1,272 yards in back-to-back losses to Oklahoma State (45-41) and Oklahoma (59-56).
Certainly West Virginia’s defensive performance in the final two games left a lot to be desired. The Mountaineer offense scored a total of 97 points in the two games, but WVU lost each. Prior its 59-56 defeat at the hands of Sooners, West Virginia had scored 50 or more points 77 times in school history and had won every one of those. It is now 77-1.
Outside of the defensive disaster season of 2012, when WVU allowed 45 points or more six times, the Mountaineers had not allowed 45+ points in back-to-back games in the past 40 years. Until late November of 2018.
So obviously West Virginia’s defensive struggles were a huge factor in the team coming up short at the end of 2018.
But how did it happen?
After all, this was a Mountaineer defense, under the direction of Tony Gibson, who is in his fifth season as WVU’s defensive coordinator, that was second in the Big 12, allowing just 20.9 points and 354.2 total yards per game, prior to its trip to Oklahoma State on Nov. 17. Only Iowa State’s defense (20.4 points and 344.4 total yards) was better at that time.
How did WVU go from a defensive unit that allowed more than 34 points in a game just once (the 42-41 win at Texas) to one that gave up 35 points in the second half alone to the Cowboys and also in the first half to the Sooners?
First, you have to give credit where credit is due. OU and OSU are two of the best offensive teams in the country. The Sooners are first in both the Big 12 and the entire FBS in scoring offense (49.5 points per game) and total offense (577.9 yards per game). The Cowboys are third in the league in both categories (38.4 points and 500.0 yards), as only the Mountaineer offense (42.3 points and 520.4 yards) stands between the Bedlam rivals in the league this year.
Oklahoma, which in some statistical categories is the best offensive team in the history of college football, scored 45 or more points in 10 of its 12 regular season games. OSU scored 40 or more in seven of its 12. WVU, by comparison, reached 40 points in eight of its 11 games.
Injuries admittedly took their toll on West Virginia’s defense at the end of the year, particularly at the linebacker position.
The front end and the back end of the Mountaineer defense remained relatively healthy throughout the season. Bandit safeties Toyous Avery and Derrek Pitts missed one and three games respectively because of injuries, but WVU’s other top five DBs played in all 11 games. And up front, West Virginia’s rotation of Kenny Bigelow, Jabril Robinson, Reese Donahue, Ezekiel Rose, Darius Stills and Dante Stills remained intact throughout the regular season.
The same can’t be said at linebacker, though, where injuries began to mount even before the season began. Quondarius Qualls and Brendan Ferns each suffered knee injuries last spring, and Charlie Benton had the same injury in the first half of the season-opener against Tennessee. Outside of three games at the end of the year when Ferns saw some special teams duties, all three linebackers were lost for the regular season. Qualls and Benton would have been WVU’s top two sam linebackers, but without either, JoVanni Stewart moved down from safety and started in that outside linebacker spot the rest of the season.
The middle linebacker position was the hardest hit. Ferns was the backup at that position in the spring, working behind Dylan Tonkery. Tonkery started the first five games of the season, but suffered a pulled groin against Kansas, and other than trying to give it a go for a few plays against TCU, the sophomore from Bridgeport wouldn’t be back on the field for the rest of the season. Adam Hensley, another backup middle linebacker, sustained a knee injury in game six, thus sidelining him for the rest of the year. Former walk-on Shea Campbell stepped into the starting role at middle linebacker that was opened when Tonkery was hurt, and he performed admirably for as long as he lasted. He started against Iowa State, Baylor, Texas and TCU, but suffered a neck stinger against the Horned Frogs that would affect him the rest of the regular season. Campbell tried play the next week at Oklahoma State, but he quickly had to be relieved by Zach Sandwisch, who would have been the fifth-string middle linebacker back in the spring, if the depth chart had gone that far. Campbell wasn’t able to see any action in the regular season finale against Oklahoma State, and Sandwisch got his first career start against an OU offense the likes of which few had previously seen.
The cumulative effect of all those linebacker injuries took their toll starting in the second half in Stillwater. WVU’s rush defense prior to OK State had allowed an average of 137.0 yards a game, and had held TCU the week before to an amazing minus seven rushing yards. But the Cowboys ran for 266 yards on West Virginia (only Iowa State, with 244, had more than 168 on the ground against the Mountaineers up until then), and the Sooners topped the OSU mark with 304 rushing yards. WVU’s pass defense wasn’t any better, as Oklahoma State (338 passing yards) and Oklahoma (364) became just the second and third teams to throw for over 300 on the season against West Virginia (Texas with 354).
Despite all the points it put up, the Mountaineer offense also didn’t help its defensive brethren because it played at such a fast pace. WVU ran 91 offensive plays against Oklahoma State and 90 versus Oklahoma, the first times in the past two seasons that the Mountaineer offense ran 90+ plays. West Virginia is just 2-6 in the Dana Holgorsen era, which began in 2011, when its offense runs 90 or more plays in a game, and even if you stretch that search back prior to Holgorsen, some 25 years ago, WVU has lost nine of the last 11 games in which it has 90 run or more plays.
Faster is not necessarily better.
Outside of the two 90+ play wins – 45-6 over Maryland in 2015 and 30-21 over Oklahoma State in 2013 – West Virginia’s defense has given up over 30 points in eight or those nine 90+ play losses. The only outlier was a 17-12 loss at Rutgers on a 91-play day in 1994.
Though the last couple of games cloud the perception of the 2018 Mountaineer defense, statistically it actually rates near or better than other WVU defenses of recent vintage, even with those crushing numbers from Oklahoma State and Oklahoma included.
With obviously the bowl game against Syracuse still to go, West Virginia’s rush defense (150.8 yards per game, the fourth best mark in the Big 12) is better than any statistical season for the Mountaineers since they held teams to 144.8 rushing yards per game in 2011, which was Holgorsen’s first as head coach and the last under defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. The Mountaineers are giving up 254.6 passing yards a game (sixth in the Big 12), which is better than three of WVU’s previous six defenses. And most importantly, West Virginia’s scoring defense (26.5 points allowed, fifth in the Big 12) is five full points better than 2017 (31.5) and overall the third best mark of the Holgorsen era, bettered only by 2016 (24.0) and 2015 (24.6).
Admittedly the two most recent games cloud the perception, but West Virginia’s defense, especially when you take into consideration all the injuries at the linebacker position, hasn’t been the disaster some now assert.
Certainly it’s not been the Steel Curtain, but it also hasn’t been the 2012 Mountaineers (allowed 38.1 points per game) either.