Rematch with Baylor can show how much defense has toughened

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Though Keith Patterson says he tries not to look in the rear-view mirror, it’s impossible not to sneak a peak back at the defensive carnage left from Sept. 29, 2012, the day West Virginia beat Baylor 70-63 in the highest-scoring game Big 12 football has ever witnessed.

Baylor receiver Tevin Reese, who sprang free against West Virginia in last season’s 70-63 loss, is one of seven Bears averaging more than 21 yards per catch this fall.

The Mountaineers piled up 10 touchdowns and 807 yards, needing every bit of that to counter Baylor’s nine TDs and 700 yards. Though WVU won its Big 12 debut, Patterson considered it a day to live in defensive infamy.

“I tried to block that out of my mind,” he said.

Almost exactly one year forward, West Virginia ranks third in the conference in total defense at 345 yards per game—some 127 yards lower than the WVU defense in Patterson’s rear-view mirror.

The improvement has coincided with numerous factors: Patterson taking over for Joe DeForest as defensive coordinator, returning players showing more resilience, and three newcomers making immediate contributions.

All those components were on display in the fourth quarter last week when the Mountaineers turned back No. 11 Oklahoma State at the goal line.

Leading 24-21, safety Karl Joseph separated a third-down pass from OSU receiver Josh Stewart in the end zone. But a facemask flag away from the play restored the Cowboys to first-and-goal at the 3.

Jeremy Smith, the Big 12 leader in touchdowns and a short-yardage load at 210 pounds, carried off right tackle and seemed headed for the goal line until being stood up by safety Darwin Cook.

On second down at the 1, J.W. Walsh tried a fade route into the deep corner where WVU’s Travis Bell batted down the pass.

Then came third down, where OSU ran wide with Smith only to see juco transfer Dontrill Hyman blow up the play for a 5-yard loss.

“(Hyman) just had a tremendous explosion off the ball,” Patterson said. “He was out of his stance before that guard took his hand off the ground.”

When Oklahoma State flubbed the subsequent field-goal attempt, West Virginia had the momentum to finish off a 30-21 upset, and Patterson saw first-hand how much his defensive players had developed.

“They have a physically tough, mentally tough edge to them,” he said.

That edge wasn’t apparent only during the 16-7 loss at Oklahoma or the upset of OSU; but Patterson saw progress during the 37-0 loss at Maryland, when his guys were down 30 points yet played “like it was the second half of the Super Bowl.”

Now comes a rematch in Waco against No. 17 Baylor, the nation’s most dangerous offense through the season’s first month. A fast-striking unit brandishing more weapons than the one from 2012 Patterson tried to block from his mind.

With the Bears propped up as four-touchdown favorites, outsiders don’t figure WVU’s defense can improved enough to keep this week’s game competitive. Yet Patterson views it as another stress test for his unit to prove itself.

“A diamond doesn’t become a diamond unless it undergoes intense heat and pressure,” he said. “So I’m looking for a bunch of diamonds.”

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