WVU Defense Steps Up Despite Depth Issues

West Virginia defensive coordinator Vic Koenning talks to his players after another stop
West Virginia defensive coordinator Vic Koenning talks to his players after another stop

WVU Defense Steps Up Despite Depth Issues

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s defense has gotten a great deal of credit for its performance last week at Baylor, albeit it in a 17-14 loss.

Offensively the Mountaineers could get little going in Waco, and thus WVU came up short in its upset bid of the undefeated and No. 12 Bears.

West Virginia defensive lineman Darius Stills (bottom) sacks Baylor's Charlie Brewer
West Virginia defensive lineman Darius Stills (bottom) sacks Baylor’s Charlie Brewer

Defensively, though, West Virginia held Baylor below its average in every major statistical category. BU came into last Thursday’s showdown at McLane Stadium averaging 202.7 rushing yards but managed just 176 vs. WVU. The Bears’ 277 passing yards were five short of their average, and their 453 total yards were 31 below their average. And in the stat that mattered the most, Baylor averaged 38.9 points a game in their 7-0 start to the season, but scored only 17 on WVU.

The Mountaineers mustered just 14 points of their own, though, and thus their record dropped to 3-5.

Still, the defense had plenty of positives, including eight sacks against a team that had given up a total of just 13 in its previous seven games.

“I don’t know if going into that game that I thought we’d have eight sacks,” admitted WVU defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. “Then again, when you turn on the film, we should have had 12 of them. But we are continuing to progress and get better.”

Wet Virginia junior nose tackle Darius Stills accounted for three sacks at BU, while his younger brother, sophomore defensive tackle Dante Stills, had two of his own. The pair now has seven and six sacks on the season respectively, placing each among the top four in the Big 12 in that department.

“When those guys play hard, they are really good, but that’s true of a lot of guys,” noted Koenning.

West Virginia now has 26 sacks as a team, which ties it with Baylor for the Big 12 lead. But football is a week-to-week business, so eight sacks against the Bears doesn’t mean equal success the next game out.

“Texas Tech is a team that throws the ball very quick, throws it in rhythm, tons of screens,” said Koenning of the 3-5 Red Raiders, who come to Morgantown this Saturday for a noon kickoff on ESPN2. “They slow down your pass rush, so we’re going to have to be prudent with what we do. We just can’t go flying up the field. I think Baylor came out thinking they were going to throw the ball deep a lot, and we were able to get some pressure to get them off that a little bit. But every game is different.”

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With injuries having decimated much of WVU’s linebacking corps, Koenning implemented a new scheme last Thursday in Waco. Normally the Mountaineer defense employs three defensive linemen, three linebackers, a spear safety, two cornerbacks and two deep safeties.

But partly because of personnel shortages, and partly to combat Baylor’s big-play passing attack, West Virginia switched to a new scheme for most of the night against BU. Basically the Mountaineers pulled their middle linebacker and replaced him with an extra deep safety. The new starter was Noah Guzman, a 6-foot, 205-pound sophomore who arrived at WVU this summer from Cerritos College. At times on Thursday he would move up and play a linebacker spot and other times he would drop back to become a third deep safety allowing West Virginia to play an umbrella coverage.

“When I was at a school called Memphis State – I get harassed for calling it that (because in 1994 it dropped the “State”), but I have a Master’s Degree from Memphis State – in the ‘90s, we played that three-safety look against Steve Logan and East Carolina, who was pretty good. I think we had eight picks,” recalled Koenning of the 3-2-6 defensive scheme. “There have been times periodically when we pulled that out. I know there was a time at Wyoming when we used it against BYU when they were eighth in the country, and we got them. It’s not something I haven’t done. It is a fade in the Big 12 now, but it is something I’ve done before. I did it at Clemson, and I did it a bunch at Illinois. If it fits what you need – and candidly, we haven’t had enough safeties to do it where we had better linebackers than safeties. You want to put your best 11 out there, so you just go from there.

“We had a couple extra days, so that’s why we were able to do that,” added Koenning of the 12 days between WVU’s previous game at Oklahoma and the one at Baylor. “Guzman did a good job. He was the guy we were able to take away from another position to learn that.”

Even though Guzman was knocked out of the game late in the third period at BU, suffering both a head and ankle injury, he still was West Virginia’s leading tackler for the contest with 12 stops, as well as a fumble recovery. All in his first start with the Mountaineers.

“He’s not scared, and he does what he’s asked to do,” said Koenning when explaining the La Puente, California, native’s tackling ability. “You’ve heard me talk until I’m blue in the face about if guys do what they’re supposed to do, they’ll have opportunities to make plays. He was in the right spot, and we need to have him continue to have the opportunity to play, whether it is backing up (starting cat safety) Sean Mahone or in a nickel situation. Ankles are one of those things that don’t heal fast, so we’ll see where he is this week.”

Guzman wasn’t the only newcomer who earned praise from Koenning. True freshman bandit linebacker Jared Bartlett saw his first collegiate action last week against Baylor. The Mountaineers still plan to redshirt the Suwanee, Georgia, youngster, but he can play in up to four games and not have this year count against his eligibility clock.

“Bartlett did a great job,” WVU’s defensive coordinator stated, as the freshman had two tackles. “We knew going into the game that he was extremely athletic and explosive. What we didn’t know is if he would play hard. He really only had one play where he got a little bit flustered. He played really hard. He’s a very aggressive young man. A lot of the reasons he was signed here where things you saw in the game. He gave us some speed that we’ve kind of been lacking there.”

West Virginia’s starting bandit against Baylor was Dylan Tonkery, who had been at middle linebacker previously but moved to the new position when WVU’s top two bandits, Quondarius Qualls and VanDarius Cowan, each were lost to injury in recent weeks.

“It was kind of a necessary deal, because we’re running out of those body types,” said Koenning of the move of Tonkery, who had four tackles and a sack against Baylor. “We’re trying to get him to the point where he’s comfortable, and I think he showed a little bit of comfort. He did a much better job than he has been doing. He didn’t run down the middle of guys. He actually dipped his hips and got around people. He was a very effective player, and I expect him to get better and better and better. I love him to death. He’s a good guy, who really wants to do well. We’re all big fans of his, and we want him to continue to progress.”

On a defense already stressed by numerous injuries, Guzman now is questionable as well. All those medical issues may make life difficult for a defensive coordinator, but as Koenning has said, when the ball is kicked off, no one feels sorry for him; they just want results.

“We have a couple of days, so we’ll let guys get a bunch of treatment and see where they’re at,” he noted. “It’s definitely going to effect what we’re able to do, but we’ll put 11 out there and see what happens.”


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