High School Football

Losing ground: Loss to Kansas began rough stretch for WVU’s run defense

Kansas running back James Sims breaks away for a 68-yard run, one of his three touchdowns in the Jayhawks’ 31-19 victory over West Virginia last November.


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Casting back to last Nov. 16, to the day when Kansas fans stormed the field, those 211 rushing yards by James Sims certainly exploited a West Virginia defense that was sloppy and undermotivated.

“We came out flat and it showed,” recalled safety Karl Joseph.

Some 10 months later, the motivational holes may have been filled but not the running lanes.

Since the 31-19 loss in Lawrence, West Virginia has shown no competence to slow down opposing rushing attacks. In the five-game stretch against FBS teams, the Mountaineers have allowed 5.7 yards per carry and 14 rushing touchdowns.

The game-by-game breakdown:

Date Opponent Rushing YPC TDs
 Nov. 16, 2013 at Kansas3155.84
 Nov. 30, 2013 Iowa State2444.62
 Aug. 30, 2014 Alabama2885.93
 Sept. 13, 2014 at Maryland1636.01
 Sept. 20, 2014 Oklahoma3016.54


(The outlier during that span was a 54-0 win over Towson, which netted 42 yards rushing on 29 attempts. It was a dominant effort, for sure, though West Virginia doesn’t measure itself against teams from the Colonial Athletic Association.)

In the last five games that mattered, WVU has allowed five 100-yard rushers, two of whom cracked the 200-yard mark. Four opposing runners set career highs.

Most recently, Oklahoma freshman Samaje Perine carved up Tony Gibson’s defense for 242 yards and four scores—a performance in which Perine busted through numerous tackles yet also ran untouched into the second level.

With Kansas bringing one of the nation’s most inept offenses—not to mention a shuffled coaching staff—into Morgantown this weekend, West Virginia had better show signs of reversing the trend. Gibson needs his front seven to dig in, fight off blocks and create negative plays against the Jayhawks.

“If they climb those guards up on our linebackers, we’re going to be in for a long day,” Gibson said. “Coming from the Oklahoma game that was disappointing. They were single-blocking us and driving us off the football.”

By allowing 5.26 yards per carry this season, a stat that includes the Towson game, West Virginia ranks 109th among 126 FBS teams. That may invite other offenses to attack in similar fashion, and Gibson doesn’t have many personnel options to compensate. Through four weeks, West Virginia has favored a five-man rotation for its three linebacker spots (with Isaiah Bruce primarily used only when Wes Tonkery was injured). The defensive line also has stuck with the five-for-three rotation, with lightweight defensive end Shaq Riddick used sparingly against Alabama and Oklahoma.

With players further down the depth chart presumably not ready to contribute, Gibson conducted some bye-week tweaking and boiled down the defensive playbook.

“The stuff that we weren’t doing well we’ll get rid of, and the stuff that we are doing well we’ll continue to keep getting better at that,” he said. “With the stuff that wasn’t fitting, we had to look at and say it’s not worth it—risk vs. reward.”

Gibson recognized there were packages that players “can’t handle mentally, whether it’s a blitz or a coverage or a certain check.” So he stripped those away and concentrated on a fewer assignments.

“Our goal from Day One was to have our kids play fast, so we’re honing in on what we do well,” he said.

While insisting a rematch against the Jayhawks isn’t centered on redemption, Gibson said his players recall how poorly they played last year when Kansas snapped a 27-game Big 12 losing skid. That game also marked only the second time Kansas scored 31 points in its last 33 games FBS opponents.

“We got embarrassed at Kansas a year ago, and not because Kansas had only won a couple games,” he said. “It was just the way the game went. It was 31-7 in the fourth quarter and they were doing whatever they wanted to.”

This time around, Sims has graduated and the Jayhawks arrive with four new offensive line starters. West Virginia’s defense returns eight holdovers, all with a nagging recollection of Kansas—and several more recent opponents—running at will.

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