MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – If WVU wants to get back to its winning ways, its defense will have to revert back to its standards from before the Houston game.
Last week, the Cougars scored touchdowns on five of their final seven drives. The WVU defense also did not record a takeaway or an impact play on special teams (blocked kick, flipped-field return, etc.) for the first time since the Penn State game, and Houston rushed for over five yards per carry.
“Defensively, our best players didn’t play very well,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said. “I think any time – regardless of sport – when your best players don’t play very well, you’re going to struggle. Our best players didn’t play very good. By far the worst performance of the year. I think it starts with poor fundamentals. Our pad level was high. We didn’t shed blocks. We missed a lot of tackles. We needed to dominate with the front six, and we didn’t. Our pass coverage wasn’t good enough.”
In response, defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley also called for more production from the top of his depth chart.
“Your best players have to play well,” Lesley said. “It doesn’t matter how long they do this. If you’re the best player, there’s an expectation of how you play, and I don’t think that’s any different from high school to the NFL. There’s a specific expectation on how you should play every week. That’s why you’re the best player.”
Brown noted Monday that defensive back and linebacker are the two thinnest positions on the WVU roster, but both will receive boosts sooner rather than later. Junior safety Aubrey Burks – who missed the Houston game after his injury against TCU – will return Saturday. Junior linebacker Tirek Austin-Cave also practiced this week for the first time since fall camp, and he will provide much-needed depth at linebacker following redshirt freshman Trey Lathan’s season-ending leg injury upon his return sometime this month.
Still, the Mountaineers have the No. 4 total defense in the Big 12 (345 yards allowed per game). Only four teams (UCF, Iowa State, Baylor, Texas) are allowing fewer passing yards per game than WVU, and the same goes for its rushing defense.
Lesley’s defense is also one of five groups in the conference allowing fewer than 21 points per game.
“We played really well on defense for four weeks in a row,” Brown said. We played the opposite of that on Saturday. So whatever [is] the opposite of really good, that’s [how] we played.”
Despite its success from a yardage standpoint, the WVU secondary isn’t creating as many takeaways as it would like. The Mountaineers have the third-fewest interceptions (five) in the conference, and they have a dropped interception in each of the last three games. All five of the teams picks came in the Duquesne (two) and Pitt (three) games.
“Guys are in position,” Lesley said. “At the end of the day – just like we talked about with injuries – [if] your number’s called, you got to make the play.”
Up front, WVU’s defensive line combined for just six tackles last week. It was averaging 16 total tackles per game during the winning streak.
“Once you look at the film a couple times through, you got to let it go…You just got to focus on Oklahoma State,” junior defensive lineman Eddie Vesterinen said. “You just got to forget about Houston right now because you can’t do anything about it.”