The Times West Virginian

December 11, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: Defense needs to be WVU’s No. 1 priority

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — When Dana Holgorsen took over as West Virginia’s football coach, he came carrying the credentials of an offensive innovator and with an unbroken history of offensive success, the assumption being that it would carry over from Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State to WVU.

And, for two years of Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, it did, but this past season there was a dramatic fall off in production not only after losing maybe the three greatest players ever to perform in the passing game at WVU all at once, but also through injuries to two of three quarterbacks who were to inherit the job.

So steep was the decline that it was natural to place most of the focus on the offense’s shortcomings as the season deteriorated into a 4-8 disaster.

That, however, works against future improvement because the defense must be made into the No. 1 priority.

In a conference that offers so much offense, it figures that the team playing the best defense would win the title, and a strong case can be made that Baylor was the best defensive team in the conference, ranking second in scoring defense and total defense ... but trailing different teams in both categories.

True, the Bears did not have to face their own offense, while others did, affecting the final numbers in no small way, but you have to play the hand that’s dealt you.

This, though, is not about how good Baylor’s defense was, but how much worse West Virginia’s was than people realized.

The reason it avoided more criticism was twofold, the heavy focus on the offense and the fact that the defense was actually improved over the previous season when it established itself as the worst in WVU history.

The problem was the improvement wasn’t from bad to good. It was from atrocious to terrible.

How bad was the WVU defense last season?

Here are some of WVU’s national rankings on defense in 2013 (out of 123 teams):

• Passing yards allowed ... 263.3 yards per game ... No. 108

• Scoring defense ... 33.3 points per game ... No. 99 tie

• Rushing defense ... 191.7 yards per game ... No. 90

• Total defense ... 455.0 yards per game ... No. 102

• Pass efficiency defense ... 140.81 ... No. 95

• Third down efficiency defense ... 42.7 percent ... No. 91

• Fourth down efficiency defense ... 75 percent ... No. 117 tie

• Sacks ... 1.33 per game ... No.106

That’s eight categories being ranked No. 90 or lower.

If this seems bad, it’s really worse. Two nonconference games were played against FBC opponent William & Mary and a winless Georgia State team that is moving into FBS play. The Mountaineers held Georgia State to just 84 yards passing and a dismal Kansas team to 61 passing.

Take those two games away and WVU gave up 302.5 passing yards in its other 10 games, which would rank 119th out of 123 teams — unacceptable and unbelievable.

Did the defense suffer a great many injuries that cut down on its effectiveness?

It did.

Is that an excuse?

Not in the least. This is football. Injuries happen and you must be able to fill those voids with capable players.

Think the offenses they were facing were always at full strength?

But to understand better what is going on defensively at West Virginia, one must put together last season and this season’s figures. Over the past two years only seven teams in all of FBS football have allowed more yards than WVU football (see chart below) — New Mexico State, Idaho, New Mexico, Indiana, Eastern Michigan, Nevada and California.

That is not the kind of company WVU wants to be keeping in football.

The deterioration in the defense went from the time Holgorsen scrapped the 3-3-5 that Jeff Casteel had run so successfully in favor of a 3-4.

“Yeah, what’s always given me the most problems is the 3-4,” Holgorsen said before his first season of using it. “It’s just a lot of movement and a lot of stemming and showing looks and not necessarily what you line up in is what you’re going to get. I think the 3-4 gives you the best opportunity to do that. So Oklahoma State did that a little bit with Joe (DeForest), but Keith Patterson, from a front standpoint, has been doing that. I’ve coached against him the past four years at Tulsa, and between the two of them, they’re going to put something out there that’s pretty tough to play against.”

We’re waiting.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.