Mike Casazza: Secondary a primary concern for No. 8 WVU
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- There was that great scene at the end of Saturday's football game at West Virginia, the one where nary an overindulged soul left the gold and blue striped stadium and instead stayed in their seats beneath a smoldering scoreboard and sang John Denver's song.
The players and coaches from both sides shook hands and hugged and stepped off toward their locker rooms, though WVU's participants had the thrilling and discomforting realization that they had scored 70 points against Baylor and won by just seven.
"Welcome," defensive coordinator Joe DeForest would say a while later, "to the Big 12."
Mountaineer Field had never seen anything like it, but DeForest, a veteran of 11 years in the league at Oklahoma State, had and he had tried to warn people that there might be days like that one.
Safety Darwin Cook, a senior with three seasons of Big East expertise, was new to the league, but felt like he'd seen it before and he explained the feeling after he skipped that postgame scene and headed for the team's quarters.
"I felt like Clemson's defense," he said.
Yikes. WVU's offense in the Orange Bowl made the Clemson defense a punch line for the offseason, but now the Mountaineers, once unapologetic, were sympathetic.
That's the takeaway note.
Forget the point and yardage total. Never mind that a Baylor player managed to outrank Stedman Bailey's 13 receptions and 303 yards or that if WVU had committed 17 pass interference penalties instead of letting Terrance Williams catch 17 passes, it would have amounted to 69 fewer yards receiving for Williams.
The Mountaineers, still in their infancy in DeForest's 3-4 scheme and on the cusp of Saturday's 7 p.m. game against No. 11 Texas on Fox's nationally televised stage, are backpedaling into Texas Memorial Stadium with a secondary that is a primary concern in front of 100,000 or so people.
This is not the place to say that it can't continue and that No. 8 WVU must get better. That's obvious. Nor is this the place to say that it won't continue and that WVU will get better. That's not necessarily true. Not when DeForest reverts to the way of life in the Big 12 and the lineup of offenses that can pick a suspect defense out of a lineup.
Rather, the wonder here is what WVU is going to do and with whom the Mountaineers will do it. The coaches are going to try and they tried against Baylor. They blitzed and they did not. They disguised and they could not. They played zone and a little man-to-man. They played close to receivers and they played off the receivers and they played even farther off the receivers.
If there was a foremost frustration for DeForest after the game, it seemed that the kitchen sink sunk and that even good plans looked bad when players bombed in big moments - like that folly at the end of the first half that became a 65-yard touchdown.
"What do you do?" DeForest said. "You tell me. If you've got an answer, tell me."
Begin with a deep breath and then a slow, smooth exhale. If everyone is going to praise WVU's offense and grant Baylor's defense a pass, it's only fair to flip the script and extend the Baylor offense credit.
"This wasn't the ideal opponent to open up with," DeForest said.
No, but now the Mountaineers must make something of it. It could start with personnel changes, and it doesn't take much imagination to see where that might occur. WVU's defensive line has done well. The linebackers make plays across the field. Cook has a knack for being near the ball and making something happen. The other safety, Karl Joseph, has had ups and downs, but is certainly trending up.
That leaves the cornerbacks and Texas has three receivers keying a suddenly potent passing attack that averages 12 yards per completion and one touchdown every 8.5 attempts from quarterback David Ash. Using the golden Geno Smith standard, that's pretty good. Smith averages 12 yards per completion and a touchdown every seven attempts.
DeForest did pull starting cornerback Pat Miller after Williams caught his 16th pass. He caught his 17th against freshman cornerback Nana Kyeremeh for a touchdown.
"I didn't want to," DeForest said. "You want to build these guys' confidence. As soon as you pull a guy, he loses confidence and you may need him later."
Yet Coach Dana Holgorsen talks often about accountability and he'll pull a punter or an offensive lineman or even a backup quarterback if he can't handle the task. Trust the expectations are the same on DeForest's side of Holgorsen's team. The urge that might be harder to resist, and smarter to follow, is status quo.
"I don't feel like it's a personnel issue," Cook said. "We always had the right plays called and we were in the right place to make plays. This is a team defense. It's my fault. It's the defensive line's fault. It's the linebackers' fault. It's everyone's fault. You don't give up 63 points because of a couple players."
DeForest felt best about getting lined up properly and not falling victim to Baylor's tempo, which is shallow praise, but was nevertheless a top goal before the game and one that will remain valuable in the Big 12. And like Cook, he thought players were in position to make plays that they just didn't make. It might be better to trust those players to return to the right spot and make the best play the next time than gamble on a new player to do the same.
"We'll look at making personnel changes and making better calls, but we've got to do a better job of, when the ball is in the air, attacking the ball," DeForest said. "They ran the same plays we practiced. They never really tempoed us. We were always in position to make plays. They just executed better than we did. That's what we've got to change if we want to compete in this league."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.