WVU football: Confidence is defense's biggest nemesis
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia's defense may be better this season than it was a year ago - though how much is open to debate after the past few games - but this defense is having a hard time with something that never troubled the 2012 defense: confidence.
Last year's Mountaineers never had it. This year's Mountaineers are letting it get away.
"We kind of lost our swagger a little bit," West Virginia defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "Kids are starting to play a little more tentative, a little more cautious instead of challenging people."
There is no mistaking the cause, either. WVU still hasn't recovered from the 73-point, 864-yard debacle at Baylor 17 days ago.
"The deal at Baylor was unlike anything I've ever been associated with in my life," Patterson said. "It was just catastrophic in a lot of ways to our psyche."
WVU failed to sack Texas Tech freshman quarterback Davis Webb in 50 pass attempts, and Webb passed for 462 yards in his second career start (first on the road). If it wasn't clear by Webb's performance, then it was in the manner the Mountaineers allowed the game's first 10 points and final three touchdowns to lose 37-27.
That wasn't the defense Patterson was so proud of after five weeks.
After an interception return for a touchdown and only 21 points allowed in 19 possessions against then-No. 11 Oklahoma State, the Mountaineers were ranked No. 36 nationally in scoring defense and No. 37 in total defense.
They've given up 1,437 yards and 110 points the past two games and are now ranked Nos. 84 and 103, respectively.
They've also slipped to No. 96 in pass defense, which was the team's undoing in 2012, and sacked the quarterback just once the past two games. Ten sacks for the season are good enough to rank No. 109.
"We were steam-rolling and playing with so much confidence coming off of Oklahoma State and then just like that, you go, 'Wow,'" Patterson said. "I just didn't see us playing with any of that swagger and confidence. It was like we were in position at times to make plays, whereas earlier in the season we were finishing them."
Safety Darwin Cook, who has four interceptions, couldn't catch a pass that hit him in the hands on the first play of the game. Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski missed a chance to intercept a pass in Red Raiders territory in the fourth quarter on the drive that ended with Texas Tech's final touchdown.
Safety K.J. Dillon couldn't defend Texas Tech's Jace Amaro one-on-one on a lofted pass that went for 32 yards on a third-and-2 and set up the first touchdown in the comeback. Kwiatkoski couldn't bat down the touchdown pass Amaro caught with 1:01 remaining that put the Red Raiders ahead 37-27.
"We didn't take a step back at Baylor - we took two steps back," Patterson said. "I think what that did was it stole some of our confidence. We didn't play with much confidence (Saturday). I could sense that after we went up 27-16. They were getting in a rhythm and were hoping we could get off the field. The first five games, we knew we were getting off the field."
The open week before the loss to Texas Tech was supposed to help the Mountaineers recuperate. Coaches thought players were tiring after six games in six weeks without a breather, and that was supposed to explain trouble with tackling. Yet the defense wasn't much healthier against the Red Raiders and tackling was an issue late as the number of snaps started to accumulate.
WVU only used 20 players on defense. While Kwiatkoski was back in the starting lineup, the defense was without nose guard Christian Brown, linebackers Marvin Gross and Wes Tonkery and safety Ricky Rumph. Freshman Daryl Worley started at cornerback, which pulled him out of his nickel and dime roles, and Patterson worried during the week those holes would be hard to fill without Rumph, Tonkery and Gross.
"We don't have depth," WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "We're scared to put other guys in, which is tough when you're defending 80-some plays a game."
That problem with confidence has spilled over onto the coaching staff. It doesn't have as many healthy options as it would like, but also lacks reliable players to cover injuries. Patterson would only say that he "didn't have the people" he needed to cover Texas Tech's passing game the way he wanted.
"I don't want to make excuses, but we're limited right now. Put it that way," Patterson said.
The final five games provide something of a break, hard as that is to say for a team that's lost eight of its first 13 Big 12 games. Still, the 2013 schedule was top heavy and more modest offenses are in line the rest of the way, beginning with Saturday's 3:45 p.m. game at Kansas State. The game at Bill Snyder Family Stadium will be televised by Fox Sports 1.
In the four Big 12 games, the Mountaineers have played the top three teams in the Big 12 statistics and three of the top four in both total offense and scoring offense and the top three in passing offense. The home game against Texas Nov. 2 is the only one left against a team that isn't ranked in the bottom half of those categories.
"We've got a different kinds of challenge now," said Patterson, who begins with Kansas State quarterbacks Daniel Sams and Jake Waters and an offense that has them as the team's leading and third-leading rushers. "I want to focus on getting better, and we'll continue to focus on getting better. But somehow, some way, we've got to get our confidence back."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.