WVU’s red zone defense at its best in victory over Virginia Tech

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Jackie Matthews’ breakup of a Braxton Burmeister pass on fourth-and-goal from the West Virginia 4-yard line sealed the Mountaineers’ 27-21 victory over No. 15 Virginia Tech in the final minute of Saturday’s game.

It also capped one of the Mountaineers’ better red zone defensive performances under Neal Brown, whose record at WVU improved to 13-12 following his second victory over a ranked team.

“In the red zone, we did some really good things,” Brown said.

The game-clinching sequence will be most remembered from Saturday, and allowed the Mountaineers to avoid what would’ve been a disastrous collapse after they led by 20 points late in the third quarter and 13 with inside of 4 minutes.

Tech had all the momentum and a chance to take its first lead late when Jermaine Waller intercepted an ill-advised pass from Jarret Doege on a wide receiver screen. Waller’s return of 11 yards put the Hokies at the Mountaineers’ 17, and two plays later, they had first-and-goal on the 3.

Two Jalen Holston runs resulted in a 1-yard loss and Burmeister’s incompletion on third down set up the decisive play.

Fortunately for West Virginia’s defense, it was one the unit has become familiar with through its practice of two-point plays.

“It’s repetitions. I could see it unfolding,” Brown said. “He did what we call an orbit motion and came back out and our guys in the back end did a great job matching it. Then we had some pressure from the inside-out. You in-and-out it, but we switched it off and that’s great.

“That was a really good job. We played it like we had seen that play before, which we had. They’ve covered it numerous times. Obviously a huge play in the game”

As a result of the look the Hokies presented, WVU safety Alonzo Addae said the defense had a good idea what was coming.

“That wasn’t a two-point play, but it was ran similar to one we had seen,” Addae said. “It was really just executing it.”

As for Matthews being in on the breakup, it continued a trend of strong play through the first three games for the junior cornerback.

“Everybody is just really proud of the steps that he’s taken,” Addae said of Matthews. “We expect him to be a big part of our defense. Pretty much in every game, he’s flashed this year and made plays. We definitely look forward to seeing more of him.”

There were two other empty red zone trips for the Hokies, and just like on their final drive, they were inside the 10 on both occasions.

With WVU leading 24-7 late in the opening half, Raheem Blackshear busted a kickoff return for 78 yards that allowed VT to start on the opposition’s 22.

The Hokies had a near touchdown on Burmeister’s pass to an uncovered Tayvion Robinson, but it was ruled incomplete and stood after it was reviewed. A false start inside the 5 set Tech back, and after Burmeister’s incompletion on third-and-goal, John Parker Romo missed a 24-yard field goal that allowed the Mountaineers to lead by 17 at the break.

“They hit a big kickoff return and Malachi Ruffin chases the guy down and makes a tackle,” Brown said. “At the time, nobody thought about it because they’re probably in position and will score a touchdown anyway. Well lo and behold, Malachi Ruffin really saves it. They end up jumping offsides and miss a field goal. Now we know that was a huge play in the game.”

The second of VT’s three empty red zone trips came on its first series of the fourth quarter, which started from the WVU 48 after Doege lost a fumble on a sack.

After converting a fourth-and-6, the Hokies got to the WVU 8. Three plays netted 2 yards and forced a fourth-and-goal from the 6 — a play Jared Bartlett won off the edge to record one of his three second-half sacks.

“Playing our gaps, trusting the formations and trusting our scheme,” Bartlett said. “Playing fast and playing physical — that’s how we got things done.”

The Hokies had 11 offensive plays inside the Mountaineers’ 10. Burmeister threw five incomplete passes, while six runs gained 6 yards and a penalty cost them 5 yards.

A pair of turnover on downs and the missed kick prevented VT from scoring on each of its three trips inside the 10.

“This was going to be a defining moment for us and where we’re at,” Brown said. “The crowd was electric. We appreciate them and they made a difference. They really made a difference early and they made a difference late on that final drive. They were having a hard time communicating and the last drive of the first half they had a hard time communicating.”

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