WVU football: Defense looking to apply pressure
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia's defense tends to look at statistics a little differently than many others.
Forcing a field goal in the red zone isn't ideal, but it's better than allowing a touchdown.
The Mountaineers know they'll give up some high yardage totals when Big 12 Conference play begins, but they say scoring defense is far more important.
Sacks are subjective and WVU believes other things are just as critical. That explains why coaches track things like making the quarterback shuffle and reset his feet or how many times he checks down to a shorter, quicker route.
None of that is a sack, but it's pressure and the Mountaineers want to stress the passer. Yet WVU's defense wasn't backing away from the implication of having just one sack against Marshall and entering Saturday's win against James Madison tied for the fewest sacks in the country.
Nor is WVU shying from four sacks against the Dukes and an effort that bumped them up to No. 40 in the nation.
"We did better, but we could have had more," WVU defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said. "We let them get out of the pocket. We pressured a bunch, but he's very elusive and got out of some situations where we had him hemmed up. That's where we've got to improve.
"When we're blitzing, we have gap lanes and we have to make sure everyone is in the right lane so when we do blitz, it's not just a mass exodus. We have to attack and be disciplined."
No. 8 WVU (2-0), which hosts Maryland (2-1) at noon Saturday (FX telecast), didn't blitz much against Marshall, not even on a list of third- or fourth-and-longs.
The Mountaineers were much more aggressive against JMU and swift quarterback Justin Thorpe. He ran 11 times for 45 yards and many of his runs and most of his longer runs came when he slipped out of a near sack.
"I think it was a good test for us," linebacker Doug Rigg said. "He was a real athletic, scrambling quarterback who was a lot faster than he looked - and he didn't look slow. That was a good test for us because we're going to see a lot more mobile quarterbacks."
Maryland quarterback Perry Hills, a graduate of Pittsburgh's Central Catholic High, has a team-high 38 carries, though 10 of those are sacks. Twenty-eight carries would rank second on the team.
The offensive line returns just two starters and has had protection issues.
Early opponents Temple and Connecticut play a 3-4 defense, as does WVU. Temple had four sacks and Connecticut had six.
The Terrapins have also surrendered 24 tackles for a loss this season, with Temple getting nine and UConn 11. UConn's defense leads the country in tackles for a loss, but Temple has only four other tackles for a loss this season.
It's led to a lot of early action for Hills. Removing sacks, he ran 11 times against Temple and 12 times against UConn.
"He's been hit a lot," WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "That's something that's going to be important for us."
The Terrapins don't call plays for Hills to run the ball, but he is willing to scramble and he's tough enough to do it. Hills is a 6-foot-3, 205-pound freshman playing only because presumed starter C.J. Brown suffered a season-ending knee injury in August. Hills was the state wrestling champion at 195 pounds in the PIAA's Class AAA in May and is Maryland's first freshman starter since Latrez Harrison in 1999.
"Defensively, we want to be aggressive," Holgorsen said. "We want to attack him in a variety of ways, like you would any young kid. You want to give him specific looks and confuse him."
The Mountaineers try to do that and hope to succeed with pressure by sending a fifth rusher from a spot the defense can't anticipate. The three linemen and one of the outside linebackers usually rush, but offenses have to figure out which outside linebacker is coming. WVU adds another wrinkle with the fifth rusher who can come from one of the other three linebacker spots or the secondary.
Their sacks against JMU came from all over the field. Safety Travis Bell, outside linebacker Terence Garvin and defensive end Dozie Ezemma had sacks while defensive end Will Clarke and middle linebacker Isaiah Bruce combined for a sack.
"We'd love to have our four-man rush get there if it can, but if we can't, we've got to add a fifth or sixth person," DeForest said. "That's part of learning who we are and what we have. We need to find ways to break down protection and get there. Once we get there, we've got to make tackles."
WVU believes it should be able to do that a little more effectively after two games and three weeks of practice. Coaches were concerned about player discipline and maintaining gaps and blitz tracks after the Marshall game, but said it was better against JMU. They believe it will continue to improve the more the team plays and blitzes. The Mountaineers are still a team using a number of players with new and expanded roles this season.
"You're going to see tremendous improvement from all of our kids in all areas, but especially blitzing," co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "It's not just something where you send them out there and say, 'Hey, just go.'
"There's technique and there's understanding how to attack backs who are blocking. You have to think about how to attack an offensive lineman who's in a pass setting against our guys from the second level. A lot of our guys haven't done a lot of blitzing before. There were a lot of times they were running in there and running into lead blockers, but I think you'll see tremendous improvement with pressure the next three or four weeks."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.