West Virginia’s defense ranked first in the Big 12 Conference in three of the five major statistical categories – scoring (20.5 ppg), total defense (291.4 ypg) and passing (159.6 ypg). It was in the top four in the other two – second in pass efficiency (121.5) and fourth in rushing defense (131.8 ypg).
Statistically it was WVU’s best defense since 2010, which allowed just 261.1 total yards and 13.5 points per game.
Other than a meltdown in a 42-6 loss at Iowa State, West Virginia’s defense gave up more than 27 points just once on the season – a 34-27 loss at Texas Tech – and held seven of its 10 opponents to 21 points or less.
For the most part, it was hard to find many negatives about the Mountaineer defense of 2020, but there were a few bad things to go along with the many good.
Defensive line – West Virginia’s three-man defensive front was very good and very experienced.
Senior defensive tackle Darius Stills appears to have NFL talent. Despite being a bit small for an interior d-lineman at the next level (6-1, 285 lbs.), his quickness and tenacity led him to consensus All-American status in 2020, and the NFL mock drafts believe he’ll be a third or fourth round pick this spring. WVU hasn’t had an interior defense lineman drafted by an NFL team since 2011 (Chris Neild, seventh round by Washington) and hasn’t had one taken in the top six rounds since 1999 (John Thornton, second round by Tennessee).
The Mountaineers’ great defenses of the late ‘90s were built around outstanding defensive linemen like Thornton, Kevin Landolt, Henry Slay and John Browning, who all went on to be drafted by and play in the NFL.
This year’s defensive line is arguably WVU’s most talented front since that group more than two decades ago, and that’s a big part of why the 2020 overall defense was so good as well.
Darius actually had better stats as a junior (47 tackles, 14.5 TFLs and 7 sacks) than as a senior (25 tackles, 7.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks), but that was because he was the focal point of every opposing game plan this past season. He was almost always double and even triple teamed, which may have limited his playmaking at times, but allowed the linebackers behind him like Tony Fields, Dylan Tonkery and Josh Chandler-Semedo to run free and make tackles.
The focus on Darius also meant that his fellow linemen usually were single-blocked, and that opened up playmaking chances for Dante Stills and Jeffery Pooler as well.
West Virginia was also fortunate in that its first-team defensive front stayed healthy all year, as the three each started all 10 games.
In all, the trio of Pooler and the Stills brothers played 115 career games among them, so they had a great deal of experience to draw upon. That allowed them to be good against the run; while they were fourth in the Big 12 in rushing yards allowed (131.8 per game), they were second in terms of yards per rushing attempt (3.5).
Also, while they finished sixth in the league in terms of sacks (2.2 per game), their harassment of the opposing quarterbacks allowed WVU to rank No. 1 in the conference in pass defense (159.6 ypg).
Pass defense – West Virginia not only finished the 2020 season first in the Big 12 in terms of passing yards allowed (159.6 ypg), but it was also first among all FBS teams in the country.
The WVU pass defense allowed 43.4 yards fewer than anyone else in the Big 12. It also gave up just 6.3 yards per pass attempt, which was the best in the league as well. Its 12 TD passes allowed tied Baylor and Oklahoma for the best mark in the conference in that category, and the Mountaineers’ 11 interceptions were more than any Big 12 team, other than Oklahoma (16) and Baylor (12). In addition, West Virginia’s defense allowed a pass completion percentage of just 61.8%, which was better than anyone else in the league other than TCU (54.2%) Oklahoma (55.4%) and Oklahoma State (57.8%).
WVU’s pass D was consistently strong all season, other than giving up 247 yards in a 42-6 loss at Iowa State.
That performance in Ames was the poor outlier, as the Mountaineers limited each of their other nine 2020 opponents to fewer than 185 yards, except Baylor. In WVU’s 27-21 double-overtime victory against BU, the Bears threw for a total of 229 yards, but 25 of those came in OT.
Rush defense – West Virginia’s run defense has been pretty good the past couple of years, allowing an average of 147.7 ypg in 2018 and 159.4 ypg in 2019, but it was even better in 2020.
It allowed an average of 131.8 yards per game on the ground this past season, which was the fourth-best mark in the Big 12 and the 28th best nationally.
The Mountaineers gave up an average of 3.5 yards per rushing attempt, which is second best in the Big 12 and ninth best among all FBS teams that played at least 10 games.
WVU limited four opponents to less than 76 yards, and seven of West Virginia’s 10 foes this past season rushed for fewer yards against the Mountaineers than they averaged on the year. The exceptions were Oklahoma State (203 vs. WVU, averaged 187), Texas Tech (179 vs. WVU, averaged 162) and Iowa State (236 vs. WVU, averaged 195). Not surprisingly, West Virginia lost each of those three games, but in the seven games where the Mountaineers held their foes below their average, West Virginia was 6-1. The lone exception was the 17-13 loss at Texas, where the Longhorns, who averaged 195 yards per game, had just 170 against the Mountaineers.
Interceptions – West Virginia’s 11 interceptions were the third most in the Big 12 this past season and 23rd most in the FBS.
In the league, only Oklahoma (16 INTs) and Baylor (12) had more picks than the Mountaineers did, while WVU faced fewer pass attempts. The Sooners had one interception per 25.5 every pass attempts, while WVU had one per every 23.1 attempts. BU was the league’s best with one INT for every 21.6 attempts.
West Virginia had an interception in all but three games – Texas Tech, Texas and Iowa State – and lost each. Thus getting turnovers was a big part of WVU’s formula to victory. It was 4-0 when it won the turnover battle, and interceptions were a big part of that, as the Mountaineers only recovered five opponent fumbles in 2020.
Limiting explosive plays – West Virginia’s defense wasn’t perfect in terms of stopping explosive plays of 10+ yards.
The Mountaineers allowed their opponents 95 plays of 10 yards or more and 31 of 20+. Each of those figures were the second fewest given up this past season by an FBS team that played at least 10 games.
WVU was also pretty good in terms of limiting plays of 30+ (15, 7th best), 40+ (8, 16th) and 50+ (3, 14th).
Just to give you a comparison, West Virginia’s offense, which was middle of the pack in terms of its own explosive plays, had 148 plays of 10+, 49 of 20+, 23 of 30+, 4 of 40+ and 3 of 50+.
Red zone defense – While the Mountaineer defense was the best in the Big 12 in many statistical categories, it did have some issues when it came to stopping opponents once they got into the red zone.
WVU was seventh in the 10-team Big 12 and 72nd among all 127 teams in the FBS in red zone defense, allowing its foes to score 85.0% of the time. Iowa State topped the league in that area at 74.3%.
Now West Virginia did allow opponents to get into the red zone far fewer times than anyone else in the Big 12, as it faced 20 red zone situations and allowed 17 scores. The next fewest in that regard was TCU at 28 red zone chances with 22 of those going for scores (78.6%).
The Mountaineers were also fifth in the Big 12 in allowing touchdowns on 60% of those 20 red zone trips.
Those numbers were a little high for a defense that was otherwise so good, but because WVU faced so few, its figures were easily skewed.
Third down conversions – Like its red zone numbers, West Virginia allowed opponents to convert a relatively high number of third down situations, especially when you consider how good the Mountaineer defense was otherwise.
WVU allowed its foes to convert on 55 of 140 third downs, which is a 39.3% mark. That was seventh in the Big 12 and 55th in the FBS.
Within the Big 12, only K-State (30.1%), Texas Tech (41.4%) and Kansas (41.8%) were worse defensively on third downs. Those three each had losing records, so for a West Virginia defense that was basically very good, that third-down rate was an oddity on the wrong end of the statistical spectrum.