Defense Backs Up Talk vs. Oklahoma

Many times throughout the 2012 season, I found myself wondering what the West Virginia football team would look like if it had a decent defense to go with the offense that it had.

That made it even weirder when I was watching WVU's game against No. 16 Oklahoma Saturday in Norman, Oka., and started to ask myself a similar question.

Only this time, I wanted to see how good the Mountaineers could be if the offense got on the same page as the defense.

It's a strange concept to think of because there's not a whole lot that is different from last year when you look on the surface. But even though it's the same players, there's a much different mentality surrounding this group.

Since the Mountaineers opened spring practice, new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson and the rest of the players – especially the returners – have constantly been talking about how this year's defense was going to get back to the basic principles that the Mountaineers executed extremely well in the past when they were consistently among the nation's best units. They admitted that they lost sight of the little things they needed to do, and the results showed it.

But of course, it's one thing to talk about how much better you're going to be. It's another thing to be able to actually go out and show that you've made those strides once the season starts.

In the first game, it was a bit of a mixed bag. At times in the first half against William & Mary, West Virginia looked like it hadn't improved much. Then it came out in the second half and shut out the Tribe, but that's usually what you would expect a team like WVU to do against an FCS team that won just two games in 2012.

There were positives to take from that first game, but everything seemed to be considered very cautiously. No one would really know what the Mountaineers could do until they took on Oklahoma.

And they answered the call Saturday night.

The Mountaineers got the loss, but they gave up just 16 points. The lone touchdown came on a five-play, 32-yard scoring drive that started thanks to a muffed punt.

One thing West Virginia stressed a lot last season – and some players said this was stressed too much and was placed ahead of doing the fundamental things that they're doing now – was forcing turnovers. West Virginia was so focused on forcing turnovers last season that stopping teams consistently became almost a secondary concern.

Saturday, the Mountaineers took advantage when the Sooners made their mistakes. They forced four turnovers, the most since the Orange Bowl win two seasons ago, and they did it by doing those fundamental things well.

Repeatedly, Oklahoma looked to be in a good situation driving down the field only for WVU to capitalize on a mistake to get the ball back.

Of the four Sooner turnovers Saturday, three of them happened in or close to the red zone – this comes a week after William & Mary scored every time it got into the red zone.

But they didn't get enough help.

After the game, Patterson seemed a bit flabbergasted as to how WVU didn't win.

"I told them Sunday that if we forced four turnovers, we'd win the game," Patterson said. "It didn't happen.

"We're a good defense, I knew we were going to be. We had a good plan, our kids felt comfortable and, once we got into the flow of the game, I knew we could make it hard on them."

Now, assuming West Virginia's defense can play as well as it did Saturday, it's going to need the other sides of the ball to help out. Sure, the Mountaineers gave up a lot of yards on the ground – it was the first time since 2001 that the WVU defense allowed more than 300 yards on the ground in a regular season game – but any time you only give up 16 points and force four turnovers, as Patterson said, you should be able to win a game.

If nothing else, the defensive players on the WVU football team have something positive to build off of. They might not have won, but they went toe-to-toe against a dangerous offense and gave their team a chance to win the game – and the offense didn't have to score 40 points like it would have a year ago.

But now comes the hard part.

What the Mountaineers did Saturday means nothing if they can't sustain that level of play throughout the rest of the season, especially while the offense continues to work out the kinks.

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