West Virginia Preview: Defense

While the West Virginia offense has searched for identity, the Mountaineer defense has produced an average unit based around a tough front line and a talented safety duo.

Last season, the Mountaineers actually finished slightly higher than their current No. 60 ranking in Defensive S&P+. But actually looking at the numbers, West Virginia has a better S&P+ number than a year ago, while the Mountaineers are allowing fewer points per game and not getting as gashed by opposing passers.

Much like Oklahoma and Kansas, West Virginia runs a three-man front that can vacillate between a 3-4, a 4-3, a 3-3-5 and a 4-2-5 based on the versatility of the linebackers. That's because the Mountaineers utilize a BUCK end/linebacker at one outside spot and a SPUR linebacker/safety at another outside spot.

But it all starts up front, where a big — they average 6-5 287 — and talented trio help the Mountaineers to rank a respectable 35th nationally in Rushing S&P+. Defensive tackle Will Clarke (6-7 273) is probably one of the Big 12's best defensive linemen. Often, three-man lines don't do much other than hold up blockers to free up the linebackers, but Clarke is the exception to that rule. He ranks second in the Big 12 with 11 tackles for loss, and his four sacks tie him for seventh in the league. Shaq Rowell (6-4 305) is an excellent nose tackle who has 36 stops, including three for loss. In fact, Rowell's play a year ago against Texas helped the Mountaineers hold the Longhorns to just 3.5 yards per carry. Kyle Rose (6-4 285) has 35 tackles, including 7.5 for loss, at the end spot opposite Clarke.

In a 3-4, the task of supplying pressure often falls to the linebackers, especially off the edge. But the Mountaineer starting linebackers have combined for just six sacks, a big part of the reason they're last in the Big 12 in sacks per game. That's not really the fault of BUCK linebacker Brandon Golson (6-1 223), who has 6.5 tackles for loss and four sacks among his 34 stops. He's also a strip machine, leading the Big 12 with four forced fumbles. WILL Jared Barber (6-0 233) and SAM Nick Kwiatkoski (6-2 232) are second and third on the team in tackles, combining for 112 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss. SPUR K.J. Dillon (6-1 200) has 25 tackles on the year, including two for loss.

Texas offensive coordinator Major Applewhite said this week that the Mountaineers are as physical as any team he's seen at safety. Boundary safety Darwin Cook (5-11 203) leads the team in tackles with 65, and he also has 2.5 tackles for loss. But most importantly, he's been huge at generating turnovers, with four interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Field safety Karl Joseph (5-10 200) has 50 tackles, two for loss, one forced fumble, three fumble recoveries and an interception.

Ishmael Banks (6-0 182) and Travis Bell (6-1 183) give the Mountaineers good-sized players at the field and boundary corner positions, respectively. Bell has 36 stops and a pick, while Banks has 23 tackles and two interceptions.

Nick O'Toole (6-5 220) has been a solid punter, averaging 43.0 yards per punt. Nineteen of his punts have been downed inside the 20, with three touchbacks.

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