No title at stake, but WVU defense can still tap into motivation

West Virginia linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski (35) and cornerback Daryl Worley (7) show the shellshock of last week’s 62-38 loss at Baylor.



MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Having been sliced and diced by Baylor’s top-ranked offense that came in averaging 725 yards, West Virginia encounters the follow-up task of facing TCU, America’s No. 2-rated attack at a mere 616 per game.

Talk about an October schedule created for PTSD.

For an added degree of difficulty, cornerback Terrell Chestnut remains questionable for Thursday night’s matchup with a shoulder injury, and nickel back Rick Rumph—coping with the death of his grandmother—appears entirely exempt from this week’s game planning.

By the time West Virginia hits Fort Worth, we will be on the brink of 2015’s first College Football Playoff rankings, with the Frogs hungrier than ever to build their postseason resume. And though Amon G. Carter Stadium isn’t among the Big 12’s biggest venues, one stat makes it appear suddenly imposing: In eight home games since defensive-minded coach Gary Patterson installed Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham as co-coordinators of the spread offense, TCU has averaged 53.6 points.

Cue defensive coordinator Tony Gibson reminding his Mountaineers there’s no easy path out of a three-game losing streak.

“Do you think anybody feels sorry for you right now?” Gibson asked his defense this week, gauging its vigor for attacking the season’s second half. A woeful October, while mostly the fault of offensive mistakes and indefensible field position, took its toll on a senior-stocked defense in Waco last week.

At 3-3 overall and one of only three teams still winless in Big 12 action, West Virginia’s motivation might be fading. So Gibson demanded leadership, and anticipates he’ll see it.

“You’d better go out and perform, and I told them the first sign I see that you’re not doing it, you’ll never play another snap. I’m not worried about them letting up—that’s not what these kids are about. I’d be shocked if it happened.”

Linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski and Jared Barber, senior roommates and steady characters, don’t want their careers to tail off with such a thud. After the 62-38 blasting at Baylor, they’re the guys who must be alert for commitment cracks manifesting through poor body language, inattentive film study or hollow practices.

“I was worried about that—what would the mental maturity be?” Barber admitted. “But I think we’re still striving.”

Having lived through snowballing losses the past three years, Kwiatkoski was wary of the three-game skid creating collateral damage.

“No one liked it, but it happened, so we’ve got to move on and finish out the season strong. The biggest thing is you can’t let that streak affect you and keep hurting you.”

Aiming to energize his guys, Gibson squeezed motivation from the season-ending injury to senior safety Karl Joseph. (“No. 8 would give his right arm to get back out there and finish this year.”) And he reminded his players that the string of losses has featured numerous defensive stands. (“Are we that bad? No. We had one bad game, and one bad half at Oklahoma.”)

With any talk of a Big 12 championship squashed—talk that rang pollyana even as WVU went 3-0 during the nonconference warmup—Gibson said this season was never an all-or-nothing scenario.

“Our goal was to change the mindset of defensive football at West Virginia University,” he said. “Coming into this year that was our No. 1 goal. And we’ve still got a lot to play for. Hell, we can go 9-3—what’s wrong with that?”

Against TCU comes the chance to play spoiler, to lure NFL viewers away from their Thursday night game, and to impact the CFP guest list—if not as a partygoer then at least as a party crasher.

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