WVU's Defense: New Definition Of Success

The question has been raised about how to truly judge defenses in modern-day football. Is there a particular yardage amount? A points-per-game average? What of an average yards per play, or third down conversion percentage?

All those, and none of them, are revealing. It’s like what MSN by IMG sideline reporter Jed Drenning likes to quote about most statistics, comparing them to bikinis: What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.

“You have to have the mentality defensively – and we're developing this mentality defensively because it didn't exist when I came here, because of the style of ball that was played in the Big East – I was happy with our defense (against Texas Tech), because they got stops when it counted,” WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “We gave up 565 yards, and nobody is happy about that. But we got stops at certain points in the game that were very important. We were 67 percent on third down; that's a winning percentage. We got three three-and-outs in the third and fourth quarter. We held them to field goals twice in the red zone in the second half.”

By that maxim, and upon a deeper exploration of West Virginia’s current defense, one might conclude that, in situations, the Mountaineers have been quite good at times. WVU held Maryland and Texas Tech to field goals after offensive turnovers deep in its own end. It got off the field on the initial possession of the second half against the Raiders in the last game, when Nick Kwiatkoski buried the back on a fourth and one.

It forced four punts in the final five possessions against Tech, when the offense absolutely had to have it, to aid in the 14-point rally in the last-second victory. And West Virginia absolutely shut down Texas Tech on its final drive, even if the Red Raiders picked up on first down on a fortunate throw-and-catch. But other than against Kansas and Towson, West Virginia has allowed at least 447 yards each game, including 565 last week. The minimum number of points amassed by a reasonable opposing offense was 33, by Alabama in the opener. Since then, the Tide has scored 42, 17 and 14 points versus Power Five foes.

But, again, that’s a different, ball-control, SEC-style. The Big 12 it isn’t. The next taste of a spread ‘em and shred ‘em attack ‘Bama will see comes this weekend, against No. 21 Texas A&M, which racked up solid numbers against Alabama since the move to the SEC. For West Virginia, the numbers are decent. The Mountaineers are giving up 27.2 points 75th nationally) and 393 yards of offense (67th) per game. The opponent third down conversion rate of 35 percent rates 41st in the NCAA. Teams have scored 100 percent of the time (13-13) in the red zone, with nine of those resulting in a touchdown (69 percent) – numbers far too high for coordinator Tony Gibson’s liking.

“You have to watch what you do and how you do it, because they’ll blow the scoreboard up on you,” Gibson said of spreads offenses, particularly Baylor’s. “But you can’t go into any game thinking it’s going to be a shootout. Our mentality is not to let them score. Obviously we know how (Big 12 offenses) are. They are going to get plays. I’ve mentioned that something has to give, them or us, and I’d prefer it be them.

“What they do is put you in space and force you to cover the run and the pass. Cover the run for us here, but also don’t forget to wall that guy off on the pass. Well, then kids get bad eyes in the backfield and they throw it. It makes it very tough, but hopefully I make the right calls and put our kids in a position to make plays.”

Which he has at times. The defense has allowed just 20 points in the first quarter this season, and only one foe, Alabama, has scored on its opening drive. Two foes picked up nine first downs or fewer. This defense has forced a school-record for punts with 14 in one game – impressive regardless of foe. And there’s clearly been improvement across every position and in any situation from last year under then-coordinator Keith Patterson.

Heck, the last time Gibson, an assistant under Patterson last year, was on the field and looked up at the scoreboard after a half against Baylor, WVU had surrendered 56 points and 617 yards of offense in what would eventually become a 73-42 defeat. It was the most yardage amassed by any team in the first half last decade, and the 73 points broke WVU’s Big 12 scoring record set against Baylor in 2012 (70-63).

So the question remains, how good is this defense, and what is its ceiling of play? Frankly, neither has been answered. West Virginia hasn’t yet hit its peak, but it likely isn’t among the best of defenses in the country, either. There is a concerning lack of depth among the line, some hesitation while playing in space at the linebacker positions, and a few missed assignments and bad angles in the secondary and in the font six. Because of the style it faces, West Virginia is going to allow massive yardage at times. They key is to simply make enough plays to win in the right situations, a notion definable and understandable, but not one that slides easily into any base statistical measure of now.

Perhaps the best the measurables can currently come up with as a raw stat, sans getting into the metrics of something like “Moneyball” (which removes the raw aspect) would be yardage per play, third down conversion percentage and turnovers – i.e. the ability to get off the field and give the offense an opportunity. Yardage per play might be the truest raw stat available across college football, but that, too, is perilous as Holgorsen notes below. The fact is, the game film, and not the stat book, has always been most revealing. It is, truly, about situations as well as stats – again, as it always has been. It’s simply now much more noticeable as the stat aspect of it is warped beyond recognition.

“The second half with how we played defensively (against Texas Tech) was a winning performance,” Holgorsen said. “With that said, we gave up a couple big plays and a lot of yards. You can't gauge defensive football on yards per play or on total yards. It's about getting stops in key situations. Our job against Baylor? They're going to get yards. They're going to make plays. They're going to score points. But getting stops when it counts is how you've got to gauge being successful against them.”

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