West Virginia’s defense faces first real test against Texas Tech

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s defense faces its first true test on Saturday.

The Mountaineers have been among the nation’s best during the first quarter of their schedule, allowing 12.3 points per game (tied for first nationally) and averaging 10.3 tackles for loss (third).

But West Virginia’s 3-3-5 defense wasn’t recruited and constructed with any of its first three opponents in mind. This unit was built to stop the Big 12’s wide-open offenses, and Texas Tech’s may be the most potent of them all.

“We’re made to face this kind of offense, and hopefully, our kids will be up for the test,” said WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. “It’s going to be a tough one, but we have to stand up and go fight them.”

Strategically speaking, Gibson can’t be sure how his unit will react to a team that’s throwing the ball an average of 49 times a game. No one has thrown more than 29 passes against the Mountaineers despite facing significant late deficits.

“Hell, they may have that by halftime,” Gibson said.

Many of those passes will hit. The key is making sure that stops when the Red Raiders move into scoring range.

“We all know, in this league, you’re going to give up yards,” Gibson said. “The key for us is, when they get in the red zone, to make them attempt field goals and not give up touchdowns. We have to be able to tighten up inside the 20 and hold them out of the end zone as best as we can.”

Schematically, there is no comparing Texas Tech to Tennessee, Youngstown State or Kansas State. But there is one thing Gibson has seen that can carry over to playing the Red Raiders and the rest of the Big 12.

“The biggest thing, I hate to even mention it, is that we’re tackling well right now,” he said. “That’s the key to eliminating big plays. We have to make sure we keep doing that.”

When someone has missed a tackle, this defense has been quick enough to overcome it. “This is the fastest defense that I have coached,” Gibson said. “Anywhere I have ever been.”

He said it starts up front, where defensive lineman Zeke Rose can run with a linebacker’s speed.

“Our linebackers can all run. Our DBs are pretty fast,” Gibson said. “All 11 guys are as fast as I’ve been around.”

Now they will see if they’re fast enough to handle the Big 12’s breakneck offenses. Safety Travon Askew-Henry is confident that will be the case — and that the first three games were an accurate preview.

“I feel like the sky is the limit,” Askew-Henry said. “We love playing football. We don’t care who we play or where we play. We just love competing.”

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