One of the biggest questions for West Virginia coming into this season is being asked again: Can the defense replace eight starters from last season and be effective?
Through four games this season, the Mountaineers have proved at times that they are capable of shutting down their opponent and rising to the occasion, but other times they have proved that they are not and the Kansas game was a perfect representation of both situations.
Most of the hype centered around Kansas’ passing game coming into Saturday’s contest, but the Jayhawks relied heavily on its run game much to the surprise of West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson.
“They ran the ball a little more than I thought they would,” Gibson said. “I thought they were going to try to throw it all over the place. Other than the one big ball we gave up to the Sims kid, I thought we played the pass game pretty well.”
However, the Kansas ground attack came as no surprise to fifth-year senior linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton even with Kansas entering its matchup against West Virginia averaging just 109 rushing yards per game.
“I figured we would see that,” Benton said. “Coming in and seeing how the first three teams tried to attack us, guys were trying to figure out a way to run the ball against us.”
Kansas managed to rack up 367 total rushing yards against the Mountaineers with 291 of those yards coming from running back Khalil Herbert.
Herbert’s 291 rushing yards are the most ever allowed by a West Virginia defense to a single player.
West Virginia’s inability to contain Kansas’ rushing attack is concerning when you consider the fact that two of Kansas’ top running backs averaged less than 50 yards rushing per game entering Saturday.
The defensive line that features three new starters had arguably its worst performance through four games and the defense as a whole struggled to make tackles and remain disciplined.
According to Benton, the defense’s inability to stop run can be attributed to the unit’s inability to stay gap sound which was seen on Herbert’s 67-yard touchdown run in the second quarter when West Virginia stacked its defensive line on 3rd-and-2 only to be blown off the ball
West Virginia’s struggles on defense can also be attributed to injuries to key contributors.
According to Gibson, six defensive starters were missing during Saturday’s win over Kansas. Among those injured prior to the game were linebacker David Long and safety Toyous Avery. SPUR safety Kyzir White and cornerback Mike Daniels Jr, were among those that suffered injuries against Kansas.
“Probably have to have our meetings tomorrow in the training room,” Gibson said. “The bad news is if we don’t get healthy, we’re going to have some growing pains.”
As a result of these injuries, numerous freshmen were forced into major defensive roles, including safeties Derrek Pitts Jr. and JoVanni Stewart.
Freshman defensive lineman Lamonte McDougle received more playing time in the rotation and forced a key fumble in the fourth quarter. Freshman defensive back Kenny Robinson earned his second career start at cornerback.
Although the defense was forced to keep concepts simple during the game with inexperienced freshmen on the field, those freshmen received valuable playing time during a critical game situation that will payoff down the road.
“The good thing is we played a bunch of freshmen,” Gibson said. “We just got to keep getting them experience and keep working with them and just get them better.”
Despite the miscues throughout Saturday’s win, the defense came through in the clutch and helped seal West Virginia’s first conference win of the season, forcing two turnovers on back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter.
Similar to last season, West Virginia has a bend don’t break type of defense that may give up a lot of yards and points in games, but will come through in the clutch.
For the Mountaineers, their defensive performance and bye week timing could serve as a blessing in disguise moving forward as the unit has now received its wake-up call and can now spend the bye week correcting mistakes on film, recovering from injures and preparing to face a versatile TCU offense on the road.