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WVU

West Virginia's much-maligned defense makes statement vs. Tennessee

| Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018, 7:06 p.m.
Tennessee's Josh Palmer (84) is stopped short of the goal line by West Virginia's Hakeem Bailey (24) in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Tennessee's Josh Palmer (84) is stopped short of the goal line by West Virginia's Hakeem Bailey (24) in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson is determined his unit will not be the weak link in what has the potential to be a special season for the 17th-ranked Mountaineers.

His guys are off to a promising start.

The Mountaineers limited Tennessee’s offense to 301 yards and 14 points, and Will Grier threw for 429 yards and five touchdowns in a 40-14 rout of the Volunteers on Saturday.

“There were questions people had about our defense, and I think our kids responded,” Gibson said.

Sometimes there are no questions at all.

Gibson said when CBS television’s production crew came to meet with him during the week leading up to the game to prepare for the broadcast they only asked one question about his defense. The rest of the questions, he said, were about Grier and what it’s like to face the Mountaineers’ offense in practice.

Gibson, a former Pitt assistant, relayed that story to his defense before the game as “fuel for the fire.”

It seemed to work.

The Mountaineers swarmed to the ball on the game’s opening possession, limiting Tennessee to minus-15 yards to force a punt on fourth-and-25. It wasn’t all great. West Virginia allowed two long touchdown drives, including one that last nearly nine minutes in the second quarter, but the defense didn’t allow any game-breaking plays.

Tennessee’s longest pass play went for 22 yards.

“We heard a lot about how West Virginia doesn’t have a defense, and we took that personally,” said Mountaineers linebacker David Long. “We know what we have, and we went out there and showed it. … It’s only the start.”

Make no doubt it, Gibson is thrilled Grier and wide receivers David Sills and Gary Jennings are wearing West Virginia jerseys and he’s not having to spend time game-planning to stop them.

But he added, “people don’t respect our defense for a lot of different reasons.”

He knows part of that is a result of West Virginia’s struggles a year ago, where they allowed 445.5 yards and 31.5 points per game, which was 90th out of 130 FBS teams.

“We’ve put that behind us, and we’re moving on,” said Gibson, who returns eight starters on defense.

Coach Dana Holgorsen called his team’s defensive effort “pretty good,” but was not pleased with its inability to get off the field in key situations in the first half. The Vols put together a 17-play, 78-yard drive in the second quarter that kept Grier and the offense on the sideline for 7 minutes, 57 seconds before scoring on a fourth-and-goal at the 1 to pull within 10-7.

West Virginia only led 13-7 at halftime.

“Just the critical downs weren’t what we wanted them to be,” Holgorsen said. “The reason the game was as close as it was in the first half was because of simply that.”

Gibson knows the Mountaineers will face better offenses this season than Tennessee, a team that went 4-8 last season and is in a clear rebuilding mode under first-year coach Jeremy Pruitt.

But he said Saturday was a good start.

He liked what he saw, and is optimistic they can help the Mountaineers get to where they want to go this season.

“The one thing about it is I don’t want them to get complacent,” Gibson said. We’re not going to be the best defense in the country after week one, but that’s what we’ll strive to do and we are going to work hard to get there.”

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