Mike Casazza: Patience needed for WVU defense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Before you take any sort of rigid stance about No. 9 West Virginia's defense, be honest with yourself about one thing: Those Mountaineers weren't expected to be really good at the start of the season.
That's not a swipe at the defense or the coaches. It's reality. Defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said he used 30 players in the 69-34 win against Marshall and 20 of them were new - either true or redshirt freshmen or first-time upper
classmen or even kids who maybe played a little before, but not like they were being asked to in the opener.
That's a lot to overcome, though everyone on that side of the ball believes things will get better. Things have to get better. Things better get better.
But if this season's Coal Bowl were stopped after three quarters like last year's, WVU would have felt much better about its defense.
Marshall gained 178 of its 545 yards and two of its four touchdowns in the fourth quarter. The Herd did it against fatigued starters and then fresher fresh faces during a game in which the defense faced a school-record 101 snaps.
"Some of the things were breakdowns and those were either bad technique or bad alignment, which is going to happen in the first game," DeForest said.
"But if you look at the first three quarters, I think we played pretty well. A lot of this now is correcting the mistakes and cleaning up some execution things - we missed a few blitzes that could have totally changed things."
What the Mountaineers did well is a shorter list, but there were positives. They turned the ball over twice, scoring once and setting up a short score on another, and produced three three-and-outs.
Marshall was a troubling 6-for-6 in the red zone, but WVU was even reasonably tolerant of that. Two scores were field goals, which the Mountaineers will learn to appreciate in Big 12 play, while the four touchdowns were to be explained.
A blocked punt set one up and two were against WVU's mixed-bag personnel late in the game. Marshall did drive 98 yards on WVU in the second quarter - a concern because the drive featured three of Marshall's nine third-down conversions.
One in particular drove DeForest crazy.
On third-and-3, the first third-down of the drive, Marshall lined up five wide receivers and put quarterback Rakeem Cato in the shotgun. Cato gained 12 yards on a draw.
That was one of three times DeForest said he put his defense in a bad spot with a bad call.
"I can do better," he said.
DeForest says that knowing a 98-percent success rate is pretty good, but it's the statistic he and co-coordinator Keith Patterson will pay the most attention to before the Sept. 15 game against FCS No. 5 James Madison, at FedEx Field.
"You're going to make bad calls," DeForest said. "I think I can be more patient with the defensive calls. They weren't tempoing as much, but when you run into (tempo) you have to have a call ready.
"At times I didn't need to be so quick so I could put out a better defense."
If Marshall's field trip to the University of Oregon accomplished nothing else, it gave WVU plenty to think about before the game. Some of it was applied during the game.
"Same plays," said Patterson, who doubles as the linebackers coach, "but their plays look a little different."
That's a nod to the difference in personnel and the Mountaineers figured before the game the Marshall players wouldn't be able to run the Oregon plays with the same success.
There was a thought Marshall would use some of Oregon's frenetic tempo, but that didn't last because it didn't work.
What the Thundering Herd discovered was it's not wise to hurry up and give the ball back to Dana Holgorsen's offense. Two of Marshall's three-and-outs came on the second and third drives and WVU took a quick 13-0 lead. The Mountaineers were on their way to more points after the second three-and-out, but the offense exploded on fourth-and-goal at the 2-yard line.
Marshall picked its spots with its tempo the rest of the game, and had some success, but had to be careful.
"I kept thinking, 'If they go tempo, we might score 100. They better not tempo us,'" Patterson said. "Our system is built to play tempo. We're a field and boundary team so we should be able to get deployed and lined up pretty quickly. Plus, working against Dana's tempo all spring and then during camp helps."
DeForest said he needs to be more patient with his play calls, but some of his haste comes with the first game. If his players can have jitters, so can he. Remember, DeForest has never been a coordinator and had never called his own plays. He'd never worked with Patterson, defensive line coach Erik Slaughter and cornerbacks coach Daron Roberts.
DeForest - who coaches the safeties - and Slaughter are on the field for the game while Roberts and Patterson are in the coaches' box. They've found a few things they can fix amongst themselves. The first thing the group talked about after the game was how to streamline their communication between plays and series and how to better identify and enact their adjustments.
"On the field, it's hard to see because the kids are so big and there's so much going on everywhere. It's hard to see angles," said Patterson, who was a defensive coordinator twice before in his career. "Up in the box, you see everything unfold so you've got to do a good job communicating that from the box to the field. I think we can make it a little cleaner how we get that information to a certain coach or to certain players."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.