Overcoming Adversity

West Virginia's defense has improved greatly from a year ago, and what makes the progress even more impressive is the way that it has been done while shuffling lineups and personnel.

Mountaineer defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is anything but a mad scientist. In most situations, he maintains a calm and even demeanor, whether it's explaining his philosophy to interviewers or teaching the scheme to his players. Sure, he's intense, and can ratchet up the volume, but even then he maintains control, no matter what the situation.

Given West Virginia's injury list on defense this season, though, it's hard to keep the image of Patterson pulling his hair into wild tufts and cackling madly as he pores over depth charts to fill the latest gaps. From the start of the season, the man charged with dragging the Mountaineer defense from the depths of the rankings has not only had to teach the differences in his plan, but also shuffle his pieces like a speed chess player. In place of the order he hoped to bring, with each player filling a specific role or two and holding down the same spots in the lineup, he's instead made more moves than a M*A*S*H unit.

It started in fall camp, when cornerback Nana Kyeremeh was felled with a shoulder injury, assigned to surgery and ruled out for the year. That thinned the competition at cornerback a bit, but it also presaged a wave of injuries one level forward. Shaq Petteway, who showed great promise as a physical linebacker, was likewise knocked out for the season. Then Dozie Ezemma, who would have handled at least some of the duties at buck linebacker, suffered broken bones in his lower leg in the opener against William & Mary and was lost for the season. What appeared to be a deep group of linebackers, bucks and spurs thus suffered their first two hits, but more were on the way.

Over the offseason, Patterson had moved some players around, and during the fall those switches continued. Most notably, Isaiah Bruce, who had been playing inside, moved out to the spur. K.J. Dillon, the backup at free safety, became the spur on passing downs, with Bruce moving inside. Tyler Anderson moved from the buck to the sam linebacker on the inside. The losses hampered West Virginia's ability to move as quickly as possible in teaching the new positions and installing all of its different packages, but things were still reasonably o.k. heading into the Oklahoma game.

Then, like a thunderstorm sweeping across the plains, more injuries hit home. Even worse, they hit at the same positions previously affected, like a tornado attracted to a trailer park. By game's end, sam linebacker Doug Rigg had been knocked unconscious with a concussion, Bruce sat out much of the game with a leg injury, and Dillon likewise was helped off with a knee injury. The hits struck so deep that Wes Tonkery, who had only been used on special teams, was manning a linebacker spot, and true freshman Marvin Gross was trying to hold down the spur while packing fewer than 200 pounds on his slender frame. On the other side, juco transfer Brandon Golson was the lone remaining buck, and was also adding in pass rushing duties on the line on third down. Tyler Anderson had to return to his old spot for some snaps as well, and the Mountaineers were pretty much out of bodies they could run on the field.

That the Mountaineers did as well as they did against the Sooners was nothing short of remarkable. While WVU did yield 316 rushing yards to OU, it managed to keep them out of the end zone on all but one drive, and came up with several big plays to halt potential scoring forays. It would have been easy for the Mountaineers to throw in the towel, what with half of its defensive corps either sitting at home watching in Morgantown or sidelined in Norman, but they didn't.

Patterson's resoluteness again showed against Georgia State, where he patched together a lineup with more players at new positions. Eric Kinsey dropped back from his defensive end position to play the buck, but still put a hand on the ground with the front line in passing situations. Daryl Worley, another true freshman, moved from his early competition at cornerback to help at the spur. Granted, the opposition wasn't overly stressful, but the flood of moves had the potential to increase confusion and make the defense hesitant – and that issue showed a few times during the game. Patterson noted that 70% of big plays are the result of defensive alignment errors, and those occurred on two of Georgia State's early first down runs, as well as its 65-yard touchdown run to open the second half. There were other problems as well, including some bad angles and missed assignments, but given the shuffled lineup, it's hard to criticize those errors.

To be sure, West Virginia's defense is not a dominating force yet, despite the overheated claims of some observers. The Mountaineers are getting gashed for some big gains, and are 87th nationally against the run, allowing 184.7 yards per game. They've offset that, however, by taking the ball away six times (24th), and showing marked improvement against the pass, standing 31st in national efficiency ratings. And they've done so while playing 24 different players in significant defensive roles. That count doesn't include backups who played once the game was out of control, and shows just how well Patterson, his assistants and the players have risen to the occasion. They'll likely have to continue with the turnover pace, as this isn't a unit capable of throttling the opposition, but it is capable of giving the Mountaineers a chance to win.

The challenges get tougher now, of course, and the stress on all involved will only increase. WVU's last two opponents were about as much threat to complete a pass as a monk, and that changes drastically. This week's foe, Maryland, will give the WVU secondary its toughest test to date, and succeeding games against Oklahoma State and Baylor will ratchet it up exponentially. West Virginia should get at least some of its injured players back for that stretch, and it will need every available body for duty. However, the way that the Mountaineer players and coaching staff have risen to the occasion thus far gives at least some hope for the tougher tests to come.

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