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WVU football: Exploiting defense key to offense for Mountaineers

AUSTIN, Texas - Some of the secret to West Virginia's offensive success is to keep some things secret.

The Mountaineers aren't interested in talking about plays and packages, additions or adjustments, and they'd rather not talk about how they diagnose and dissect a team.

They look closely and try to exploit something, and for proof, look no further than last week.

WVU used its five-receiver set against Baylor, but changed things slightly by using five receivers instead of four and a running back.

On top of that, outside receiver Stedman Bailey was used as an inside receiver, something the Mountaineers did because they thought it would work against the way the Bears had defended five-receiver sets.

This week, the No. 8 Mountaineers (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) are preparing for their toughest defensive challenge of the season. No. 11 Texas (4-0, 1-0) comes into Saturday's 7 p.m. game (Fox) with a defense that has WVU's attention. Where the Mountaineers are looking, they won't share.

"You could probably say outside in," offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said.

The Longhorns will take the field at Texas Memorial Stadium with two very good cornerbacks and two very good defensive linemen. The Mountaineers have not yet seen two cornerbacks as good as Carrington Byndom and Qandre Diggs and might not the rest of the season.

Then there is Alex Okafor, the preseason conference defensive player of the year, and Jackson Jeffcoat - among the top defensive end tandems in the country.

Those four solidify the outside of the Texas defense and allow the others to pay closer attention to the middle.

Yet trust that a defensive coordinator making a plan to defend the Mountaineers might use Dawson's approach. WVU has made its name on offense and built the nation's top-ranked passing offense this season by excelling on the perimeter with Bailey, J.D. Woods and Tavon Austin catching passes from Geno Smith.

It is the game's premier matchup, one team's strength against the other team's strength, where the strongest will survive.

"I think we've become the type of team that's willing to accept any challenge," Smith said. "We know that being a good offense and scoring lots of points and I guess setting a lot of records and all that, teams are going to give us their best every week. We'll take on that challenge because we don't want to have people have the thrill of saying, 'We shut down that offense.'"

The Longhorns, who are ranked No. 64 in total defense and No. 44 in pass defense, allow more yards per play than the Mountaineers and just surrendered 301 passing yards to Oklahoma State. The outside was open, though, because the Cowboys ran for 275 yards, including a tone-setting 69-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage.

WVU could enable its perimeter attack on screens, quick throws, vertical routes and even sweeps if it can focus attention inside.

That requires running the ball and the Mountaineers could get a boost from the return of running back Shawne Alston. The 5-foot-11, 236-pound senior didn't play last week and saw only a few snaps the week before against Maryland. Alston had 185 yards rushing and three touchdowns the first two games. WVU has had 176 yards and two touchdowns the last two weeks with Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison substituting.

"If you hand it off to Buie and he creases it for 12 yards, then they've got to do something about it, but you've got to be able to do it," Holgorsen said. "I think everyone was happy with the 51 passes we threw and how that turned out, but without the threat of handing it off and getting some yardage right there, people do things different defensively."

Holgorsen tries to create the threat of a run to keep defenders close enough to defend the run play, but far enough to allow for pass plays. Texas tried early to focus on the Oklahoma State pass, but the early touchdown run brought more defenders to the line of scrimmage and the Cowboys had more time and space to pass.

"They're a very aggressive team, so we've got to find ways to eliminate them being aggressive," quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said. "The main thing is we've got to go out and do what we do best and make sure we don't play into their hands."

At the beginning the Texas defensive ends and the WVU offensive tackles and the Texas cornerbacks and the WVU outside receivers will have to decide where things go. Neither team will change its familiar style and will instead hope its way prevails.

"Our tackles are going to be in one-on-one situations and they've got to win those one-on-one situations," WVU offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh said. "It's just about being confident in their technique."

If so, the Mountaineers can run the ball, but also protect the passer. Both are vital because the Mountaineers are going to pass the ball a lot, which means Smith will need time to go at the cornerbacks and the tight man-to-man coverage WVU hasn't seen much this season.  

Texas will leave its corners and safeties alone or with a little help and the Mountaineers said they have to create space either side to side or down the field.

"We're not going to abandon it," Dawson said. "The bottom line is we're going to make them defend the whole field. If they've got everyone out there to take away all the leverage, something else is open. Our job and Geno's job is to put the ball in play and attack the right areas of the field.

"Now, we're not going to sit there and bang our heads against the wall if they overload the perimeter, but we are going to play fast and put the ball in play to find something that works."

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


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