No. 23 West Virginia needs run defense to improve against No. 8 TCU
Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has a simple solution for improving No. 23 West Virginia's lackluster run defense.
“Tackle,” Gibson said.
Simple but not easy. The Mountaineers have had trouble doing that effectively this season, enabling Josh Jackson of Virginia Tech and Khalil Herbert of Kansas to elevate their games to star status.
And it's doesn't get any easier. With an inexperienced defense and several players coming off injuries, West Virginia (3-1) has the task of slowing down TCU's Darius Anderson when it meets the eighth-ranked Horned Frogs (4-0) on Saturday.
“We need to quit playing on our heels and quit playing scared,” Gibson said.
West Virginia, which has all new starters on the defensive line, one at linebacker and several in the secondary this season, is next-to-last in the Big 12 and 114th in the Bowl Subdivision with 226 rushing yards allowed per game. Opponents are averaging 5.8 yards per run.
Jackson, Virginia Tech's redshirt freshman quarterback, ran for 101 yards and a score in the season opener, and Herbert romped for 291 yards in a 56-34 loss to West Virginia on Sept. 23.
Anderson has six TDs and is averaging 6.2 yards per carry. He ran for a career-high 160 yards and three scores in TCU's 44-31 win Sept. 23 at Oklahoma State. He also had a 106-yard effort against Arkansas.
“Anderson, he's a different animal now,” Gibson said. “He'll be the best tailback we'll face to this point.”
Coach Dana Holgorsen isn't fretting too much about his defense because he knows what it's done over the long haul. The Mountaineers allowed the fewest rushing yards among Big 12 teams in 2015 and were third last year despite having several new starters.
“It ain't scheme because we've been pretty good against the run these past two years,” he said. “We've got to do a better job up front of holding gaps.”
And getting to the football. None of the three linemen who are making their first starts this season are in the top six in team tackles. Defensive ends Adam Shuler and Reese Donahue have 13 and 12, respectively. Nose tackle Xavier Pegues has five.
“There is no question, when you look at it from a statistical standpoint, it is unacceptable,” defensive line coach Bruce Tall said. “We know that.”
Holgorsen would like his players to follow the example of linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton, who is averaging 12 tackles per game and has an interception.
“I'd like two more linebackers and three more safeties to do the same thing,” Holgorsen said. “When you get your starters back, it probably makes it a little easier.”
Safety Kyzir White, who is the team's second-leading tackler, fourth-leading tackler Mike Daniels at cornerback and safety Marvin Gross were hurt against Kansas. Gross returned an interception for a touchdown before his injury. The Mountaineers were forced to use several backups in what was still a close game in the fourth quarter before putting the Jayhawks away.
White, Gross and Daniels are listed as day-to-day entering the TCU game, along with safety Toyous Avery and linebacker David Long. Avery has missed two straight games with an undisclosed injury, and Long has yet to play this season after suffering a knee injury during summer conditioning.
“We do not have 11 guys right now that I feel confident in saying ‘you are our starters' and then just let them coast through the week,” Gibson said. “We are not that good right now. Every day is a competition at every position.”
Benton insists the defense hasn't lost its confidence, something it will need going up against the 205-pound Anderson.
“He's big, and he's quick,” Benton said. “You may expect him to run you over, and he'll juke you and you expect him to juke you and he'll run you over. So he has a lot of moves in his arsenal.”