First, it’s worth taking a look at just how much first-year defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s unit has improved over his one season as coordinator. Here’s the breakdown, with NCAA rank (obviously prior to this weekend’s games):
Points Per game – 33.3 in 2013 (99), 26.2 in 2014 (61); Yards Per Game – 455 in 2013 (95), 389 in 2014 (59); Pass Yards Per Game – 263 in 2013 (97), 226 in 2014 (66); Rush Yards Per Game – 192 in 2013 (83), 163 in 2014 (75).
The overall regular season-ending numbers for Gibson’s defense don’t truly tell the tale of just how much these Mountaineers improved from their Big 12 cellar-style performances of the past two seasons. West Virginia allowed an average of 26.2 points per game, but got off the field on third downs an ultra-solid 69 percent of the time on third downs (foes converted 59 of 191 tries) and 71 percent of the time on fourth downs (six of 21 opponent conversions).
And as poor as West Virginia’s offense was at times in scoring touchdowns once in the red zone – the numerous fumbles being the primary issue – the Mountaineer defense flipped that performance on the other side of the ball. The WVU offense was at 80 percent scoring rate in the red zone, but just 54 percent in getting touchdowns. Its defense, meanwhile, held foes to a touchdown rate of just 56 percent, giving the squad a fighting chance in the vast majority of contests. WVU gained more first downs than its foes in all but two games (Alabama and Oklahoma State), which again speaks partially to the third down conversion rate. The Mountaineers did finish with a minus-15 turnover ratio, gaining 13 but losing 28, but led foes in total offense, as Gibson’s defense allowed 4,663 yards while the WVU offense amassed 6,025.
Perhaps the best statistic to end the regular season was that West Virginia outscored opponents in all but the third quarter this season, and that bulge – a mere 14 points – was nothing compared to the smashing success in the final 15 minutes, when the Mountaineers nearly doubled up the competition with 110 points to just 56. That’s a measly average of 4.6 points per contest allowed defensively and 9.2 scored on offense. And as Gibson noted, the primary objective it to keep whomever one is playing from scoring. This season, for the first time in Big 12 play, West Virginia began to do that on a routine basis, and that’s a large reason it reached a bowl and finished above .500, both overall and in the league.That’s an across-the-board upgrade, which is a pattern that holds throughout until West Virginia’s NCAA 119th-rated minus-15 turnover ratio – part of which could be blamed on an offense/special teams combination that surrendered possession a whopping 28 times. Still, forcing just 13 turnovers on defense, including the fewest fumble recoveries in the nation with two was admittedly, by Gibson, not good enough. Entering the ISU game, a contest in which the Mountaineers gained two interceptions and lost two fumbles, West Virginia ranked 73rd in interceptions, 115th in turnovers gained and 122nd in fumbles gained.
“You got to get it out first,” Gibson said. “We try to coach getting it out and then recovering. We have struggled with that. There were a couple footballs on the ground (against Kansas State) and we just didn’t get them. It seems like the bounces are going the other way. We seem like we should be getting a lot more than we’ve gotten. Our guys are straining and hitting people, the ball just isn’t coming out. Somebody is coaching it better than we are, obviously.”
It’s truly amazing the win-loss statistics when one considers turnovers, because this season’s Mountaineers have taken the statistic and turned it so inside out that it’s hardly worth mentioning. Example: Lose the turnover battle by three against Baylor, including a pair of fumbles inside their own red zone, and beat the fourth-ranked team in the nation by two touchdowns. Win the turnover battle against No. 2 Alabama, and lose the game by double digits. Fumble three times, losing all, and throw an interception to finish minus-three in turnover margin against Maryland, but plus three on the scoreboard.
Here’s the, no Josh Lambert pun intended, kicker: There have been just two games in which WVU has won the turnover margin, two when it was even, and eight when it has lost. And the Mountaineers are 1-1 when winning, 1-1 when tied, and 5-3 when losing. West Virginia, entering the TCU game, was shockingly 5-0 when losing the turnover battle, a far better record than its 1-2 mark when even or ahead. Strange circumstances, indeed, as the Mountaineers, in fact, rated 33rd in margin last season with a plus-seven mark, yet won just four games.
“Turnovers, and I have been around awhile, sometimes the more you work on them the less you get and sometimes the less you work on them, they come in bunches,” said senior associate head coach Tom Bradley, himself a longtime coordinator at Penn State. “There’s a million things. Fumbles bounce. You tip a pass, you get an interception. Then you tip it and don’t get it. I know this, that every day we certainly emphasize it. Every day at the end of practice we do a turnover circuit. Every day. Not a couple times a week, every day.”
Here’s another among weird stats: If one totals the scores of West Virginia’s trio of Big 12 games against its highest-rated foes, which according to the most recent Associated Press poll were No. 4 TCU, No. 5 Baylor and No. 9 Kansas State, the Mountaineers actually outscored those opponents 91-84. Combine the entire Top 25, with No. 1 Alabama and No. 18 Oklahoma, and WVU was outscored by five Top 25 foes by a total of 15 points – or a field goal per game against the most difficult schedule in school history.
West Virginia allowed just 16 defensive points against Kansas State, putting the offense in position to win as it did against Baylor and, arguably, versus TCU especially when one considers the turnover issues that plagued the team in that game. Heck, Gibson’s defense even scored seven points itself with a forced fumble and return for a touchdown. Alas, as longtime NFL head coach Bill Parcells said, you are what your record says you are. And for West Virginia, that’s a 7-5, 5-4 Big 12 team with an excellent chance for an eighth win over what will likely be an SEC foe.
“I’ve never had an issue with them responding. They play hard and they are gritty and they are nasty and they play hard,” Gibson said of his defense. “I’m happy with where we are at. Would I like to be sitting here 11-0? Oh, yeah. Have we played bad at times? Yeah. But where we are at right now, I can’t say enough about those kids. I love coaching them, love everything about them.”