WVU defense braces for high-powered Big 12
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The numbers are staggering, intimidating even, when assessing Big 12 offenses, and the defenses around the league designed to stop them.
Three Big 12 offenses ranked among the Top 5 in the nation last season: No. 2 Baylor, No. 3 Oklahoma State and No. 5 Oklahoma. Granted, first-round picks Robert Griffin III and Brandon Weeden have moved on to the NFL, but Texas Tech (No. 13) and newcomer West Virginia (No. 15) make it five Big 12 teams — a full 50 percent of the conference — among the Top 15 offenses.
Three of college football's total offense leaders remain in the Big 12 (Oklahoma's Landry Jones, Texas Tech's Seth Dodge and WVU's Geno Smith). All three quarterbacks enter the season ranked among the Top 10 nationally in passing.
Defensive coordinator Joe DeForest, whose unit faces nine conference opponents, said the Mountaineers have every intention of derailing the Big 12's offensive express.
“We know what we want to do to try to compete in the Big 12 and win a Big 12 championship,” he said. “We're going to be an aggressive defense, we're going to be a zone defense, and we're going to try to create confusion.”
The Big 12 is such a high-powered offensive league that West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen hired a second defensive coordinator, Keith Patterson, who ran Pitt's defense last season.
While DeForest speaks in superlatives about what's expected from his defense, Patterson chooses a more pragmatic approach to tackling Big 12 offenses.
“Your goals change because of the number of snaps you're playing on defense,” Patterson said. “You're going to give up more yards. So you basically change the way you measure yourself. We look for tackles for loss. We look for three-and-outs. We look for turnovers. We look at red-zone scoring, average yards per play.”
Like most Big 12 defenses, West Virginia will adhere to a bend-but-don't-break philosophy.
Last year, Texas was the only conference member ranked among the Top 15 nationally in total defense at No. 11. TCU was next (No. 32), followed by WVU (No. 33).
“You want to be a great scoring defense,” Patterson said. “You may give up some yards, but the bottom line is scoring more points than their offense. We don't want to give up 35-40 points a game, but you want your defense to complement your offense. We're going to be more aggressive on defense to give the ball back to our offense as much as possible.”
To help with the conference change, West Virginia switched to a 3-4 alignment that goes against the philosophy of most Big 12 defenses.
Asked about the element of surprise, Patterson admits every little bit helps.
“I think it gives you an advantage. It's probably the only 3-4 defense in the Big 12,” he said. “Most defenses in the Big 12 are 4-3. Oklahoma was 3-4 at times. Basically, teams have a week to prepare for a different type front. It can change some blocking schemes and responsibilities.”
Junior linebacker Tyler Anderson observed how effective the defense could be when the offense got its first look at the 3-4.
“I talked to a couple linemen in the spring and they were confused whether I'm down or not,” Anderson said. “It's hard to tell if I'm a defensive end or linebacker.”
Conversely, Will Clarke is listed at defensive end, but the junior from Allderdice now has the flexibility to play linebacker.
“It's a great opportunity because teams won't actually know what we're doing,” he said. “Somebody may put their hand down, they may think we're going to rush inside, but they may drop back in the flat. We may confuse a lot of teams doing that.”
John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.