Last week West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson discussed the task of preparing for a Missouri team that will feature several new offensive coaches. With that prep work finished, Gibson has put together a game plan and this week the focus will shift to implementing and executing the plan in place. With nine new starters on his unit, Gibson can't be too sure how his unit will fare on Saturday, but he is anxious to see how they respond to a live, in-game situation.
"We're just going to have to see when the lights come on and it's for real, (we're going to have to see) how they perform," Gibson said. "(Justin) Arndt, Al Benton, Christian (Brown), Noble (Nwachukwu), Darrien (Howard, Jeremy Tyler, (Jarrod) Harper, they're all guys who have played and started in a game so when they have to go out and play 70 or 80 snaps we'll have to go see how it all works. It's that time and we need to make that step. We have to see what we're made of and see what we're all about."
That experience should differentiate this unit from the dreaded 2012 defense, which was one of the worst defenses in school history. That unit featured many true freshmen as well as players who were taking their first snaps in major Division 1 college football (It should also be noted that Tony Gibson was not on West Virginia's staff in 2012). While this unit may not be as dominant as the team that put together a shutout in last year's opener against Georgia Southern, their level of awareness and experience playing (although not starting) should keep the lights from getting too bright on Saturday. One of those players who Gibson specifically pointed to is middle linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton. Gibson talked about his improvement from last year and his ability to take on a leadership role.
"The biggest thing with (Benton) is maturity," Gibson said. "He's obviously a year smarter. His body has changed a little bit and he's stronger and faster. Now is his time. When you take that burden off of always (saying) - I have this guy in front of me, if I make a mistake I'm getting pulled right back out - now I think he has a little more freedom to play.
"We had that talk (about being his time) after spring ball was over. We had position meetings and individual meetings and I meet with the defense one-on-one in my office and give them my expectations with where each guy is at. They meet with their position coaches as well but Al and I had a great conversation at that time and I told him, 'Hey, we're looking at you to be our leader.' Any time you're a mike backer you're a guy who has to make calls and you're kind of who everybody looks to. It's his time to step up for us."
Gibson also dived into what he hoped to see from his unit in the first game, mainly that they don't blow any early assignments and get off to a strong start.
"(The biggest challenge is) nothing bad happening early," Gibson said. "That's what I'm looking for. It would be a shame if on the first or second play of the game to get hit with a big play and to have momentum on (Missouri's) side early. That's what I hope doesn't happen."
Gibson then added, "But you have to have a short memory to play defense any way. You have to put series' behind you and go out and adjust on the sideline and get ready to play the next one. That's going to be huge in this game. We have talked a lot about the fact what we don't know what they're going to do. Are they going to be Baylor's offense? Are they going to be Utah State or Oklahoma (Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel's previous two stops). Our job as coaches will be to adjust as quickly as we can and to get our guys up to speed on what they're doing."
It sound as if Saturday's chess match between the two coaching staffs could be a cat and mouse game for the first quarter or so until West Virginia's defensive coaches can get a bead on what Missouri is doing offensively. The defense's ability to make adjustments and adapt will surely play a large role in stopping the Tigers offense.
On the offensive side of the football, senior quarterback Skyler Howard talked about the offense's preparation for the opener against Missouri on Saturday. Howard talked about the welcomed shift from fall camp to preparing to play an actual football game.
"Starting last week, it was nice to get our feet wet with Missouri's defense and everything like that, but when Sunday night hit it was game week and I really like the feeling I had Sunday night and that has carried over to today."
When asked what specifically had jumped out to him, Howard echoed some of Dana Holgorsen's comments about Missouri's stout defensive line.
"(Missouri is) strong up front," Howard said. "That's one thing they pride themselves on - jumbling up the box. A player that really stands out to me is Charles Harris. He's a good player and a good athlete. I think as far as what we need to focus on, is ourselves. We need to execute and if we win up front we can execute. It all starts up front."
Howard also said that because Missouri's defensive line is so good, they don't need to bring a lot of pressure. A lot of other teams will try and load up the box, but Missouri has the luxury of dropping their linebackers into coverage because they can often get pressure with four. That makes Howard's trust in his offensive line even more imperative for Saturday's game. Howard talked about his level of trust in his tackles.
"We're going to trust our guys up front and we're going to execute our game plan," Howard said. "My eyes are downfield. I have to trust Yodny (Cajuste). He's going to take care of me. That offensive line has been working very hard and I trust all of them so as a quarterback they have to trust me to get the ball downfield and I have to trust them to give me the time to do it."
Howard also talked about the work he has done to improve both his pocket passing and also improvising when the pocket collapses. Both of those were major points of emphasis for him in the offseason and on Saturday Mountaineer fans will get their first chance to see if that work has paid off.