WVU football: Mountaineer defense still an enigma
LAWRENCE, Kan. - With two games left in the regular season, there are no two ways to look at West Virginia's defense.
There are, in fact, too many ways to view those Mountaineers as they prepare play at Kansas at noon Saturday on Fox Sports Net (Root Sports).
"A lot of it's been hard to understand," defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "Some things have been hard to explain how it happened."
WVU has seen two very different stretches by a defense that's rarely been able to play the same lineup. Through five games, the Mountaineers were 3-2 and had just beaten then-No. 11 Oklahoma State. It remains the only loss this season for the Cowboys, who managed 21 points in 19 possessions and have averaged 41.8 points in the five games since.
Since that day, the Mountaineers allowed at least 21 points in three consecutive possessions in games against Baylor (twice), Texas Tech, Kansas State and Texas.
On the day after the win against Oklahoma State, WVU ranked No. 37 in total defense, No. 36 in scoring defense, No. 67 in rushing defense and No. 31 in passing defense. That stood as unbelievable improvement from when the Mountaineers finished the 2012 season ranked Nos. 108, 114, 60 and 118.
It didn't stand for long, though. The Jayhawks will take their shots against the defense that's now No. 100 overall, No. 91 in scoring, No 78 against the run and No. 114 against the pass.
The Mountaineers haven't been full strength, though. They've started nine different lineups in 10 games. Sixteen contributing players have missed at least one game because of injury. Eight players have been lost for the season. Two were starters and six occurred during the season.
"It seems like all we do in staff meetings is talk about personnel and moving guys around," Patterson said. "I've never seem something like it before."
The Mountaineers are short on players and long on frustrations.
"For 12 series against Texas, they played as good as they possibly could have," Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Offensively, we put them in as bad of situations as you could with our ball security issues and problems at quarterback. With that said, they played phenomenal. They gave up (16) points in 21/2 quarters. If you want to be a great defense, that has to continue."
In the first dozen possessions, WVU's defense forced five punts and three three-and-outs and allowed only 143 yards. The 16 points came on three field goals and a touchdown and each was after a WVU turnover, none farther away from the end zone than the Mountaineers 27-yard line.
"It really boiled down to possessions 13, 14 and 15," Patterson said. "That was it. I'll never forget the shock when I looked up after the 15th possession and there's 30-something points on the board. 'How'd that happen?'"
It happened because Texas, which started 1-for-11 on third down, converted seven straight third down on three successive touchdown drives. The seventh was a 10-yard touchdown pass to perpetually open Jaxon Shipley for a 37-33 lead.
The Mountaineers (4-6, 2-5 Big 12) scored quickly and the defense supplied a three-and-out before WVU fell short on runs on second-and-1 and third-and-1 and had to punt. The Longhorns converted a third-and-1 and then a fourth-and-7 to set up a game-tying field goal.
"You can't have four straight series where they complete third-and-long plays, run right past you and score," Holgorsen said. "That's not me pointing the finger at them at all. They bailed us out for 21/2 quarters. We had a chance offensively to seal the game at the end. There's fault to go around. But if you want to be a great defense, you get them off the field when we have a 10-point lead or three-point lead."
The Jayhawks (2-7, 0-6) figure to provide WVU some trouble, despite their record and 27 straight conference losses. It will come earlier than usual, too, in WVU's first 11 a.m. CST kickoff as a member of the Big 12. The Kansas offense will take some getting used to.
"I'd say it's unique," Patterson said. "They're pretty game-plan specific, is probably the best way to look at it, for each opponent."
Kansas does something different for every team. A year ago, the Mountaineer expected Kansas to continue to run the ball and lean on running quarterback Michael Cummings. The Jayhawks instead came out throwing with Dayne Crist. Patterson said these Jayhawks "have more of an identity" than they did a year ago and run the ball very well, even though the direction of some games takes that out of the game plan.
Yet Kansas still uses two quarterbacks, this time with BYU transfer Jake Heaps throwing and freshman Montell Cozart running.
"One thing I think we've done a pretty good job of throughout most games is when people throw something at us we haven't prepare for as much," Patterson said. "The kids did a real nice job against TCU when we made a couple little tweaks to the game plan after they got 17 points on the board. I thought they did a nice job on the sideline taking the adjustments and running with them.
"Anytime you see something like that, you have to be able to make adjustments between series. I think we'll have to see how they attack us, but I think we have a really good idea and some keys on othher things that will help us.
WVU COULD HAVE three quarterbacks available for Saturday's game.
Holgorsen said on his weekly radio show that Clint Trickett and Ford Childress practiced this week and have been cleared to play. Trickett left last week's loss to Texas and did not return. Childress hasn't played since a 37-0 loss at Maryland on Sept. 21 because of a torn pectoral muscle.
Paul Millard replaced Trickett against Texas and completed 16 of 32 passes for 259 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
Holgorsen said he will not decide on a starter until Saturday.
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.