MORGANTOWN – On the first play Baylor ran Thursday night, quarterback Charlie Brewer was running for his life to get away from linebacker Dylan Tonkery, who forced him to throw a desperation pass to no one.
Having escaped being maimed by Tonkery on that first play, on the second there was no escape as West Virginia nose guard Darius Stills banged him to the ground for the first of eight — yes, you read that right — a season high eight sacks the Mountaineers would record against the nation’s No. 12 team and the only unbeaten team left in the Big 12.
Stills would record three of those eight sacks and his young brother, Dante, would register two others, a performance that would catch not only the nation’s eye but that of the opposing coach, Matt Rhule, who took a moment out of celebrating his team’s escape with a 17-14 victory to heap praise upon the Stills brothers.
“No. 56 is one of best players we’ve played against. I said that coming in. I told people, ‘Hey, this kid 56, he’s everything that I thought he was going to be, and No. 55 his brother, lights out’.”
Put together the sons of Gary Stills, WVU’s second leading all-time pass rushers with 26 career sacks, combined for 12 tackles, five of them sacks totally 26 yards in losses.
Not that either could take any joy in it as they spent their post-game time in a sullen locker room where defeat and disappointment hung heavily in the air.
“When you invest so much into this football game and came up short, it hurts a lot,” Dante Stills said. “You should have seen the faces in the locker room. We’re probably the hardest-working team in the whole conference. And coming up short hurts a lot.”
“We’re going to win a lot of games playing that hard,” Darius said. “We played one of the best games we’ve ever played on defense. Coming up short doesn’t go good.”
What made the Stills’ brothers performance all the more amazing was that they did under a great deal of duress.
“We’re beat up,” Darius said. “I’m beat up right now but you got to do what’s best for the team. Dante, he hurt his ankle early in the game, but he told me ‘Darius, I want to play with you. I want to make plays with you.’
“I told him ‘OK, but you’re the only one who knows how bad you hurt.’ I didn’t want him to hurt himself any more. He stepped up and made plays. We just ran out of time.”
More to the point, the Mountaineers ran out of bodies, especially on the defensive side of the ball. When Dante Stills left the game, someone had to replace him and that wound up being Darius.
“My brother got hurt and coach said ‘You have to play some 3 tech.’ I’ve never played 3 tech in my life, but I said ‘OK, I’m going to do it for the team.’ My attitude going into every game is ‘We’re not going to panic, we’re not going to freak out. The next man has to step up,’” Darius said.
But that was only part of it. WVU went into the game with a patchwork linebacking crew and by the time they came out of it — with their best defender Josh Norwood ejected for the second time in three games for targeting — they were playing freshmen at safety who had played little or not at all before.
Yet they stood strong against an offense that ran 82 plays and wore them down while scoring only 17 points. The leading tackler was Noah Guzman, a sophomore from California who also left the game injured, with 11 tackles. He had only had three assists, one tackle in the four games in which he played this year.
The defense simply would not allow itself to be pushed around by Baylor.
Early in the game, Darius Stills had gone out on a limb and laid down the law to Baylor, approaching ESPN reporter Molly McGrath with this message:
“Make sure you report Baylor is soft up front.”
She did, and you can bet the word got back to the Baylor linemen.
But it ain’t boasting if you can back it up and Stills certainly did that, especially as he stood strong in a goal line stand in which the Mountaineers stopped Baylor three times from the 1-yard line.
“Losing three games in a row, you kind of go into a game sort of ‘what if?’ But that goal line stand gave us a lot of confidence,” Darius Stills said. “This is a really good defense and over a period of time we’re going to get better and better.”
But Stills would not boast about his play, offering a humble assessment.
“The plays I make, they are not just me,” he said. “They’re Reuben Jones, they’re Jeff Pooler helping me out. I always give them credit for that. But making those plays don’t feel as good when you lose. A win would have made them feel way better.”
Still, this defense offered a sample of what it can do.
“Now we’ve set the standard. This is what the standard is now. Now we have to move on and up that standard,” said senior defensive lineman Reese Donahue.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel