Mountaineers’ defense hopes to keep run-heavy Hokies from hitting their stride

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — While West Virginia’s offense against Virginia Tech’s defense is strength vs. strength in Thursday’s battle for the Black Diamond Trophy at Lane Stadium, the Hokies’ offense and Mountaineers’ defense have yet to reach a level either unit aspires to through three games.

The 7:30 p.m. matchup, which will air on ESPN, could be an opportunity for a somewhat sputtering VT offense to hit its stride against the Mountaineers, whose defense shutout FCS foe Towson in last week’s 65-7 victory after allowing four and seven touchdowns, respectively, in losses at Pitt and to Kansas to start the season.

While the Mountaineers rank 104th nationally in scoring defense, that’s partially misleading in that of the 100 points West Virginia has surrendered this season, 20 stem from non-offensive touchdowns.

Against Pitt, M.J. Devonshire’s 56-yard interception return made the difference in the Panthers’ 38-31 win. The following week, Cobee Bryant’s interception alone secured the win for the Jayhawks in overtime, yet he managed to return it 86 yards to the end zone. Last Saturday, the Mountaineers allowed Towson’s D’Ago Hunter to return WVU’s first kickoff 96 yards for what provided the Tigers with their only points.

West Virginia never allowed the Towson offense to score, and though the challenge will greatly increase against the Hokies, the Mountaineers are at least somewhat hopeful position and personnel tweaks continue to pay dividends.

“Consistency is the key when you have a lot of new pieces or some young pieces,” WVU defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley said. “If we can just continue to build on Saturday, we’ll be fine.”

Against the Tigers, Sean Martin earned the start at defensive end in place of Taijh Alston, who was assessed a pivotal roughing the passer penalty during the extra session against KU. Martin is tied for the team lead with three tackles for loss and has a sack to his credit as well.

“Sean has stepped up big time,” said WVU nose tackle Jordan Jefferson, the team’s defensive player of the week for his Towson performance. “He’s hitting his stride and playing confident to where he knows it’s almost impossible to block him. He’s a strong guy, too. It’s very exciting to see a guy like him change his body through nutrition. Now it’s relaying on the field, so it’s special.”

North Dakota State transfer Jasir Cox switched from spear to will linebacker, while Lance Dixon, previously at will linebacker, moved to spear.

The absence of safety Aubrey Burks, who will return Thursday, allowed Hershey McLaurin to start at free safety against Towson.

True freshman cornerback Jacolby Spells took on a far bigger role in the secondary, which continues to play without all-Big 12 Conference preseason cornerback Charles Woods. Woods suffered an injury in the opening quarter of the opening game, and a player regarded as one of the league’s better corners will miss his third straight contest Thursday and likely at least a couple more.

“He had surgery last week and it’s kind of a unique surgery,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said. “It’s not a normal injury. It’s a really unique injury, so there’s not necessarily textbook rehab. A lot of it goes on how he feels, but we’re hopeful and he’s hopeful he’ll be back. It’ll be a couple weeks from now though.”

That’s put an extra emphasis on the play cornerbacks Rashad Ajayi and Wesley McCormick. Both will don a WVU jersey for the fourth time Thursday after transferring this offseason from Colorado State and James Madison, respectively.

As for VT, the run-heavy Hokies will likely first look to control the line of scrimmage to establish a ground game, something they often seek to do out of formations with multiple tight ends. Although Tech’s backfield has been shorthanded, it isn’t without options.

“The running backs are as good as anybody we’ve played,” Lesley said. 

Malachi Thomas, the team’s leading returning rusher with 440 yards in 2021, has yet to play this season due to a foot injury suffered in preseason camp. Thomas could return soon, though it appears unlikely his season debut comes Thursday.

Sep 10, 2022; Blacksburg, Virginia, USA; Virginia Tech Hokies running back Keshawn King (23) runs for a touchdown during the second quarter against the Boston College Eagles at Lane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Keshawn King is Tech’s leading rusher with 175 yards and an average of 7.6 per carry. However, King missed last week’s win over Wofford due to an injury suffered in the previous game against Boston College, when one of his four carries went for a 65-yard touchdown.

“We missed Keshawn’s ability to go the distance,” Hokies’ coach Brent Pry said. “I’d like to think there’d have been an opportunity or two or three for him to do some special things on Saturday. You want those game-changers to be worth a touchdown or two each week, and he’s certainly one of those guys.”

King’s status remains up in the air for the matchup with the Mountaineers. If he and Thomas can’t go, Jalen Holston and Chance Black will be the Hokies’ primary ball-carriers, though the duo has only 204 yards on 71 rushes over the first three games.

An ability to establish the run against West Virginia, which is allowing just north of 119 rushing yards on average to rank No. 51 nationally, would also benefit quarterback Grant Wells.

Wells, a Charleston native and former standout at George Washington High School, is in his first season with the Hokies after spending the previous three at Marshall, the last two of which he was the starter.

After a rough debut in which Wells was intercepted four times in a 20-17 loss at Old Dominion, the redshirt sophomore has rebounded to complete 42-of-60 passes for 454 yards with three touchdowns, and most importantly, no turnovers.

“He has a super strong arm,” Brown said. “The last two weeks, he’s been accurate with the football.”

Still, in two games against FBS competition this season, Wells is 37-for-61 with with 337 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions.He guides an offense averaging 23.7 points, which ranks No. 102 among FBS teams.

“It’s a little bit about not being predictable. We have to keep people honest,” Pry said. “I know what it’s like when offenses are predictable for us and what that means calling a game. We’ve had healthy conversations this week and we have to be able to run the ball a little bit more efficiently.” 

Otherwise, Wells will be forced to operate in predictable passing downs more often, which should increase the Mountaineers’ chances of generating turnovers, something they’ve struggled with early.

West Virginia has come up with a pair of fumble recoveries and ranks 114th among FBS teams with two turnovers forced. The Mountaineers are still in search of their first interception.

“We have to get more balls on the ground and we have to get our hands on more footballs in the air,” Lesley said. “In some scenarios, we have to be a little more aggressive in situational stuff, whether that’s down and distance, recognizing the formation set or whatever it is.”

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