It was definitely a concern coming into the season. Shootouts were expected for the West Virginia Mountaineers (6-0, 3-0) due to losing nine starters on the defensive side of the ball, a unit that ranked third in the Big 12 in 2015.
But this season the defense has been a pleasant surprise.
West Virginia has moved to 10th in the AP poll and lead the conference in scoring defense and are looking very impressive in doing so.
A couple things are definitely improving in the program on that side of the ball. The depth is much better as Dana Holgorsen and company recruit to needs and numbers, and the talent has gotten better with most of the prospects fielding at least a couple other power five conference offers (some with as many as 10 or more).
But the one thing the defensive side has had now the last three years is stability with defensive coordinator Tony Gibson.
Gibson is quickly becoming the hot name around the nation for his game plans that have shut down some of the Big 12’s and nations most high powered offenses (Texas Tech and TCU). Each week, the Mountaineers have looked not only focused, but prepared for whatever their opponent is doing.
In their four games against power five opponents—not counting BYU—West Virginia has allowed 11, 16, 17 and 10 points, respectively. In those contests, the Mountaineers have stayed disciplined, played their assignments and have rarely given up a big play.
Let’s take a look at each level of the defense.
The defensive line has performed very well after a couple games early where they struggled to get pressure on the quarterback. One player that has really come on lately is defensive tackle, Darrien Howard. Howard is the leading tackler among D-linemen with 23. He also has four tackles for loss and two sacks. The other two starters on the line, Noble Nwachukwu and Christian Brown, have also become forces the last couple weeks.
Nwachukwu, an All-Big 12 preseason selection and returning sack leader, has taken his game to the next level. He leads the team in TFL’s and sacks with five and three, respectively. During home games when the senior makes a big play, the PA system plays a part of Future’s song “Jumpman” where Future sings “Noble Noble Noble Noble” and the crowd gets fired up.
Brown has three TFL’s and the senior is on pace for his best season yet. Adam Shuler and Reese Donahue have provided great depth and are the future for several more seasons.
The defense really started to play well when linebacker David Long (18 tackles, 2.5 TFL’s) was moved into the starting lineup replacing Sean Walters, who is playing very well now as a backup. The redshirt freshman Long has harassed defenders the last couple weeks and really stood out against the Red Raiders.
The other two starting linebackers consist of Al-Rasheed Benton and former walk on Justin Arndt. Arndt is the team’s leading tackler with 34. He also has two TFL’s and a couple of sacks. Benton is right behind him with 32 tackles of his own and has developed into a great leader in the middle of the defense.
The back end of Gibson’s 3-3-5 scheme was the biggest question mark coming into the season. Those questions only became louder when Dravon Askew-Henry was lost for the season before it even began. On top of that, WVU lost Karl Joseph, K.J. Dillon and Daryl Worley to the NFL. Plus, Terrell Chestnut was as steady of a cornerback as you could find and he too, graduated.
But Jeremy Tyler (28 tackles) has stepped in beautifully for Henry.Jarrod Harper (31 tackles) has played well in place of Joseph–he played for Joseph last year when Karl suffered a season ending injury– and as of right now it’s definitely debatable if Rasul Douglas and Elijah Battle/Antonio Crawford are maybe playing better than Worley and Chestnut.
Replacing Dillon was sure to be a challenge, but Kyzir White (33 tackles, 3 TFL) has filled in and is one of the better overall players on the team.
Douglas (32 tackles, 3 int’s, 2 PBU’s) was an ESPN.com Big 12 midseason first-teamer and is working his way to a NFL future week by week.
And let’s not forget Iowa graduate transfer Maurice Fleming. The senior picked off a game clinching pass, aided by Nana Kyeremeh, to beat BYU and played extremely well against Texas Tech even though he was ejected for targeting which is a questionable call all over the country this season.
The fact is that the Mountaineer defense has been excellent thus far, but they have to remember it’s only six games. Taking one game at a time would be the wise choice for the “DAWGS” as they will play a critical role in how far West Virginia can go.
Over these last six regular season games, teams are going to be tired of hearing about how good the West Virginia defense is. They will make it a point to try and be the team that moves the ball and scores at will on them. As long as the Mountaineers stay focused and hungry, their goals should be able to be achieved.
The first test comes this Saturday afternoon at Oklahoma State (5-2, 3-1). Television coverage is on FOX and kickoff is at noon.
Featured image credit Kelsie LeRose (BGS)