MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Last season, opponents had little trouble reaching the end zone against West Virginia’s defense, which ranked 90th nationally with 31.5 points per game allowed.
Through the first two games of 2018, opponents are having trouble just getting to the line of scrimmage. The Mountaineers are officially credited with 21 tackles for loss, which ranks fifth in the nation.
The Mountaineers had 12 stops in the backfield against Tennessee, which opened defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s eyes.
“In Game 1, I was shocked that we had 12 coming out of that one,” Gibson said. “Then, my expectations were set pretty high for the guys.”
“We have a couple of DBs in the mix as well for getting TFLs. That’s good thing on screen plays and some different things like that. Usually, David Long had to get them all by himself, but everybody is contributing now.”
— Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson
West Virginia was respectable enough stopping ballcarriers behind the line last year, finishing 44th nationally with an average of 6.58 TFLs per game. But added depth on the defensive line has allowed the Mountaineers to elevate to a new level. This is where transfers Kenny Bigelow and Jabril Robinson are making their presence felt.
“The thing we’ve never gotten a whole lot out of was the tackle for loss on the D-line,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “We’re getting them out of the D-line now, which is why that number’s going up. In the past they just filled gaps. Now we’ve got D-linemen who are penetrating. It’s good to see them doing that to opponents.”
The difference is obvious to linebacker David Long. Last year he led the team with 15.5 tackles for loss in just nine games. Now he’s one of 14 Mountaineers already with a backfield stop.
“We’ve got fresh bodies in there, so it will be more hassle on the offensive line with them rotating in and out up front,” Long said. “It’s a big difference that will help us in the long run. Everyone is on board and playing for each other.”
It helps that Gibson has been able to play eight players along the defensive line.
“When we get three or four plays into the drive, we’re going to try and roll them,” Gibson said. “If the [opponents] sub, we’re going to roll our guys in and try to keep fresh bodies in.”
Gibson knows that will be a challenge as the season progresses, but he hopes the Mountaineers can continue to wreak havoc.
“There’s going to be a time that our guys are going to have to be our guys, and they’re going to have to play through some stuff,” he said. “We’ve had the luxury of having big leads and being able to rotate guys. We’ve been rotating eight guys. That rotation, in a tight game, may go to five or six guys. But right now, it’s working. We’re going to keep riding it.”
It isn’t just penetration from the front seven. Five defensive backs are also credited with tackles for loss.
“We have a couple of DBs in the mix as well for getting TFLs. That’s good thing on screen plays and some different things like that,” Gibson said. “Usually, David Long had to get them all by himself. But everybody is contributing now.”
Robinson, the defensive end who transferred to West Virginia from what is widely considered the nation’s top defensive line at Clemson, says Gibson recognizes how to use his talent.
“Coach Gibby, you’ve got to give it to him,” Robinson said. “He’s a guy that knows what he wants and understands what he has. He lets us use our abilities for us to be able to play faster. In my eyes, we’re a quick defensive line. So why not use it?”