Sans Another Starter, West Virginia Again Delves Into Depth

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - With Antonio Crawford sidelined with a shoulder injury, and Maurice Fleming out with ankle issues, West Virginia went even deeper into its bench and got an MVP performance from Elijah Battle.

The junior corner, inserted after Fleming's ongoing ankle issue flared again, played sound, assignment football and showcased excellent downfield coverage skills in the win over Kansas State. Battle blanketed K-State's wideouts, and never played outside of the defensive scheme, even in the high pressure situations late.

"I don't want to go without mentioning that I don't even need to watch the film; I don't care what the other coaches vote. Elijah Battle is the MVP of the defense this week," coordinator Tony Gibson said. "That kid came in out of nowhere. A week ago he was basically written off and that kid battled and came in and you didn't notice him, which was a great thing. He was in great coverage all game and it's great that we have another guy who stepped up."

Another being the key term. Already down All-Big 12 free safety Dravon Askew-Henry, back-up middle linebacker Brendan Ferns and a pair of defensive linemen in Jaleel Fields and Xavier Pegues, WVU's defense is continuing to piece together a unit. Fleming's ankle injury, suffered against Youngstown State, could continue to be an impediment, especially after one off week wasn't enough to fully heal. That means Battle is likely to continue to see significant snaps. The junior college transfer finished with three tackles, all solo, and was the latest addition to an ever-changing defense after Gibson made a switch at linebacker as well in replacing Sean Walters at the weakside slot with David Long.

In his first career start, Long finished with three tackles, including one for loss, and showed the burst, ability to get off blocks and tenacity that have made the redshirt freshman a hot topic for both coaches and players.

"He's a guy who makes plays," Gibson said of Long. "When you watch him in practice and even in game situations, every time he is in he makes a tackle. It was time to do something different (regarding starters) and I thought he deserved a shot. He played well from what I saw on the field live. I have said it, in four years here he may break every record in terms of tackling people. We will see. He's active, very active."

It was a microcosm of WVU's total defensive play. The Mountaineers managed to hold Kansas State to 286 yards, with just 108 coming in the second half in a dominating performance that anchored the 13-point comeback. The Wildcats managed only three points over the final two quarters, and that was on their initial possession after halftime to take a 16-3 lead. 

"We knew what we had with this team this year and what we could do and we worried about doing what we do," Long said. "I knew it was going to be a dogfight and knew we had to play our four quarters. We went out there and faced it. We looked at everybody and said it's time to go and do what we do. We just went out there and played. We had little mistakes in the first half but we went out there and faced it. We knew we had to get in the game and finish it."

Outside of Kansas State's scoring drive to open the second half, the Wildcats totaled just 28 yards and two first downs over the final two quarters before their last march that set-up the potential game-winning field goal. The three drives in the midst of WVU's comeback amounted to 15 plays for 28 yards, an average of just 1.9 yards per snap. 

"We were flying around, tackling, stopping the run," Gibson said. "We gave up a couple third down runs but I thought we played solid, never panicked. Made a few adjustments and I thought the kids played well. The kids were active. I was just dialing it up. I told our kids to just hang on and play."

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