WACO, Texas — They deserved better. Of that there is no question.
Statistics don’t necessarily paint an accurate picture of how well West Virginia’s defense performed against one of the nation’s most explosive offenses. Baylor gained 453 yards against the Mountaineers, which by the numbers is the second-worst performance for West Virginia this season.
Anyone actually watching the game unfold knows better. This was West Virginia’s best defensive effort of the year, if not for a long time before it.
“We’re going to win a lot of games playing that hard,” said sophomore Dante Stills, who had two of West Virginia’s eight sacks. “As a defense, that’s probably one of the best games we’ve ever played [in my career].”
Left for dead by an offense that couldn’t do anything in the first half, WVU’s defense fought tooth-and-nail to give the Mountaineers a chance in a game no one thought they had any right to win. The point spread for this game (19) was higher than the number of points Baylor actually scored.
Eight games into his first season, the defining moment for Neal Brown’s program was delivered on a gutsy goal-line stand that showed No. 12 Baylor that these overmatched Mountaineers were nothing to be trifled with.
Baylor, which ranks fifth in the country with a preposterous 7.3 yards per play, had three cracks at the end zone from a yard away. The Bears could not crack the code, turning the ball over on downs shortly before halftime.
“That’s what we want to base our defense on. That exact moment in the game,” said senior defensive end Reese Donahue. “That’s how we want to mimic our whole season. This is a good starting point. To be honest, that’s how we should play every down, every snap. We know what we can do and that’s how we should play every game.”
Defensive lineman Reuben Jones and linebacker Dylan Tonkery combined for the first stop, while Darius Stills stuffed quarterback Charlie Brewer on back-to-back unsuccessful sneaks.
“Losing three games in a row, you kind of go into a game like ‘What if?'” Dante Stills said. “But as a defense we showed up on that drive. That goal-line stand really put a lot of confidence in us. I feel like over time we’re going to get better and better.”
The defensive front was dominant, but they weren’t the only ones playing well. Tonkery, who has bounced in and out of the lineup all season, had perhaps his finest game as a Mountaineer. The Bridgeport native was disruptive and explosive, finishing with two tackles for loss, a sack and a quarterback hurry.
Noah Guzman showed why he earned his first career start at strong safety, finishing with a team-high 11 tackles before leaving with an injury late in the third quarter.
Already incredibly shallow at the position after losing three starters in the offseason, the Mountaineers were dealt another blow when Josh Norwood was ejected for targeting. By the end of the game, cornerback Keith Washington was acting almost as a safety with Will linebackers Exree Loe and Kwantel Raines often lined up where a corner typically does.
Lost in the shuffle was the fact Darius Stills had to exit with an injury of his own after a monster 10-tackle, 3-sack effort. Dante simply moved over and plugged the hole despite never playing nose tackle before.
“It gets kind of crazy seeing guys out of their normal positions,” Dante said. “But us as a defense, Coach Brown always emphasizes the next man standing no matter what the situation is.
“My brother got hurt, and coach was like ‘You have to play some three-technique. I’ve never played three-tech before in my life, but I was like ‘Alright, I’m going to do it for the team.’ Our attitude is if something happens, we’re not going to panic.”
The end result wasn’t there for West Virginia’s defense Thursday night. But if there are more performances like this, they will soon follow.