MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — If games started at halftime, West Virginia’s defense would be one of the nation’s most formidable units.
The Mountaineer defense has yet to allow a second-half touchdown through three games. The only time an opponent has crossed the goal line after halftime was on an interception return by Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton. Opposing offenses are gaining an average of 109 yards against West Virginia in the second half.
The building blocks for a dominant defense are certainly there. But West Virginia ranks only 61st nationally in total defense and 74th in scoring defense.
So what gives?
“It’s a credit to the defensive coaches,” coach Neal Brown said of the second-half surges. “But the first thing is we have to play better in the first half.”
Brown said the circumstances of each game have been slightly different even though each has netted similar results.
“The first game, you’re not sure what to expect against a new coaching staff. We were able to make adjustments,” Brown said. “Second game, the whole first half was bad football, so we were able to refocus the guys. In this game, North Carolina State had not shown much at all on offense in its first two games. It was almost like their first game again.
“We were able to make adjustments on defense at halftime. I’m glad we are getting better in second half, but I’d like to do it from the beginning.”
His players feel the same way about the issue.
“We finish well. We just need to emphasize more on the start,” said senior defensive back JoVanni Stewart. “Your demeanor going into the game — you shouldn’t have to get punched in the mouth to wake up and then want to play the game.”
Senior cornerback Keith Washington says the Mountaineers play with a “finish” mentality. Now they have to find the appropriate starting mentality to match it with.
“We’ve been trying to work on starting out fast,” Washington said. “When the second half begins we come out with a ‘finish’ mentality. Now we’re working on putting together a whole game.”
West Virginia came close to figuring out how to start a game against North Carolina State. The Mountaineers were on the verge of opening the game with a three-and-out, but defensive lineman Reuben Jones was called for a late hit on Wolfpack quarterback Matthew McKay. N.C. State was able to flip field position on what then became an 11-play, 46-yard drive.
A strong 60 minutes of Mountaineer defense may be as simple as cleaning up the mental mistakes.
“The message to our players is that we can be as good as we want to be,” said defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. “Sometimes it isn’t as much physical as it is emotional and between the ears… we play physical and with our hair on fire, but we need the little ‘play smart’ part in there. There was 15 plays more than we should have had [Saturday] because on third downs where we got them off the field, we gave them the ball back [with penalties].
“We have a lot of work to get better, and we look forward to coaching it up to get better.”