By Ryan Decker
At this point, West Virginia football fans understand the Mountaineers play in the Big 12.
It’s not a conference that lately has been known for shutdown defenses. Offense rules the Big 12.
However, as teams in the conference have continued to learn through the first four weeks of this season, no matter how many points your offense can put on the board, it’s important to have a defense that can hold the lead the offense gives them.
West Virginia’s offense ranks 13th in the nation in terms of yards per game (533), however, is just slightly above average in terms of points per game (33).
West Virginia’s defense, on the other hand, isn’t even in the top 100 teams in total defense.
Offensive efficiency, especially in the red zone, has also been a problem for the Mountaineers, but the main issue has been on the defensive side of the football.
WVU allowed Missouri to gain 462 yards of offense, including over 120 yards late in the fourth quarter that nearly allowed the Tigers to pull within one score with a minute remaining.
The following week, the Mountaineers allowed FCS opponent Youngstown State to total 405 yards on offense, with the story in that game being back-to-back scoring drives for the Penguins. The two drives encompassed 72 and 80 yards in the second quarter that gave Youngstown State the lead.
West Virginia’s worst defensive showing this year came in its last game against Brigham Young on Saturday.
The Cougars were able to rack up 521 total yards, 280 of which came on the ground.
Jamaal Williams rushed for 169 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and BYU quarterback Taysom Hill scampered for 101 yards.
This was a BYU team that went into Saturday’s game averaging over 200 yards less per game than West Virginia.
Not only were the Mountaineers bad on defense in general, but they were especially bad in key situations as BYU converted 10 of 15 third down opportunities.
WVU defenders may have been able intercept Hill three times, but it’s worth noting that two of those interceptions were on balls that went off the hands of Cougar receivers.
The best example to that was on BYU’s final drive, when Hill’s pass went off the hands of Aleva Hifo and into the hands of Maurice Fleming. Had Hifo made the catch, he would’ve scored and BYU likely would’ve won the game.
Instead, Fleming’s awareness sealed the game, 35-32, for West Virginia.
Despite the Mountaineers 3-0 start to the season, production on the defensive side of the ball has not been consistent.
Allowing over 460 yards of offense per game, against teams that aren’t very strong offensively to boot, is concerning for a Mountaineer team that begins Big 12 play next week against Kansas State.
K State, coached by Bill Snyder, is the only team in the Big 12 that Holgorsen has been unable to beat since WVU joined the conference in 2012. Snyder has proven time and time again his ability to exploit West Virginia’s shortcomings on defense.
Not only that, but two weeks after facing the Wildcats, WVU travels to Lubbock, Texas to take on a Texas Tech team that is second in the nation in yards per game, offensively.
Things aren’t going to get any easier for the Mountaineers over the next few weeks.
Kansas State should remind WVU fans of BYU.
The Wildcats are a team that doesn’t gain a bunch of yards, but they do run the ball well, they’re well coached and they play good defense.
Those are three things that haven’t been friendly characteristics of WVU opponents in the past.
WVU’s defense has this week to get itself in gear, or that 3-0 record could evaporate very quickly.
Most notably, tackling has to get better for the Mountaineers.
WVU fans have watched bad tackling for decades; it’s almost a staple of the program. And after the problem looked like it had been relieved thanks to veteran defenders over the last two years, the problem has returned now that the defense has a lot of new pieces.
Tony Gibson noted it media prior to the BYU game, and the problem returned Saturday.
Defense needs to improve, and fans expectations still need to be tempered given the problems on D, and the schedule that awaits.