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WVU football: In Big 12, defensive success is ‘different’

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia's introduction to the Big 12 Conference this Saturday serves as a perfect indoctrination to a new league and a new lifestyle.

Among college football's six power conferences, none does offense better than the Big 12. And not one does defense better than the Big East, which is WVU's former home and is also last among the six in scoring offense and fifth in offensive yards per game.

The No. 9 Mountaineers, who accepted the Big 12's invitation last October and joined July 1, start things off by playing host to No. 25 Baylor at noon Saturday from Mountaineer Field (FX telecast). The Bears (3-0) are No. 5 in the nation in scoring offense (51.3 points per game) and No. 6 in total offense (568.7 yards per game).

"If you think we're going to shut them down," WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen said, "you're nuts."

What's really crazy is Baylor is one of three Big 12 teams residing in the top 10 in scoring and total offense - and the Bears are below Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in both. WVU (3-0) and Texas are in the top 15 of both.

Gone are the days of northeastern football, running games, field position and time of possession.

The Mountaineers are about to feel and share a style influenced by the southwest, where kids grow up in spread offenses and college coaches recruit those players and plug them into similar systems knowing they're more ready to play than most others around the country.

"This isn't like playing in the SEC with two-tight end formations and two running backs in the backfield and a power running game," said WVU co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who coached high school football in Texas and Oklahoma before entering the college realm. "This is going to be a lot different."

The oddsmakers predict WVU and Baylor will combine to score 82 points. That sounds like a lot, but it's more than two touchdowns fewer than what the two teams have thus far combined to score. WVU and its opponent combined for 103 points in the Orange Bowl in January and then the season opener Sept. 1. The Mountaineers and an opponent hadn't topped 82 points since WVU beat Connecticut 66-21 on Nov. 24, 2007.

Changes in performance come with changes in expectations, too. Half of the league's 10 defenses last season ranked between Nos. 95-120 nationally in total defense and three were in the bottom 25 in scoring defense.

Defenses didn't win championships, though. Oklahoma State won the Big 12 and the Fiesta Bowl, but was No. 97 in total defense. Baylor won 10 games and the Alamo Bowl with Heisman Trophy quarterback Robert Griffin III, but was in the bottom 25 in both defensive rankings.

When WVU defensive coordinator Joe DeForest gets his eyes on a box score after a game, he doesn't look at yards his defense allowed. He knows Big 12 teams will move the ball. He's instead worried about how his defense can minimize the damage.

"You measure success on defense differently now than you used to," DeForest said. "Ultimately you want to win the game and you'd like to hold them to a certain amount of points, but you're going to give up some things. Can you get off the field before they score? Can you turn them over before they score? Can you force them to kick field goals instead of letting them score touchdowns?"

The Mountaineers don't want the opposing offense to move the ball, but they know it's going to happen. If they give up one or two third down conversions, they want to stop the next one. If they don't get a stop on third down, they want to get a turnover. If they can't get the turnover before the offense gets into the red zone, they want to stand up and force a field goal instead of allowing a touchdown.

"If you can hold them to field goals, you're going to win a lot of games," DeForest said.

Ultimately, WVU hopes to become a team that doesn't take pride in allowing field goals.

"We're not satisfied unless we block it," Patterson said. "We're not going to be No. 1 in red zone scoring defense unless we start blocking field goals. We need to attack and block those and not just surrender the three points because we feel like that's a win for us. We want to get to the point we turn those into scoring opportunities for us."

Total defense doesn't matter much to the Mountaineers. Their offense is going to score and score frequently, which means the defense is going to be on the field for a lot of snaps.

Sometimes many of those snaps come when the opponent is trailing and forced to pass. WVU will occasionally play conservative defense with a lead and make the other team put together a long drive instead of allowing one big play.

WVU wants to rank higher in scoring defense, forcing turnovers and third down stops, but knows it won't be so simple.

"You'd still like them to only get 10 points, but you're talking about 18- to 22-year-old kids and you're throwing 100 plays at them," DeForest said. "Chances are someone is going to make a mistake somewhere.

"If they chuck the ball deep 20 times, the chances are they may catch one. They may get out in space and make a defender miss - and look at what we do with Stedman Bailey or Tavon Austin. It could be one guy on this play or one guy on that play, but if a guy makes a mistake on defense, it's six points. If a guy makes a mistake on offense, it's second down."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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