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WVU’s lack of tackling and aggressiveness allowing opposing teams to break free following catches

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It’s no secret the West Virginia defense has struggled in each of the Mountaineers’ four games within Big 12 play this season.

The 38 points surrendered to Texas during a non-competitive October 1 loss in Austin marks the fewest points West Virginia has allowed in league play.

For all the issues the defense has encountered, one of the more troubling aspects of late has been an inability to get pass-catchers to the ground following catches.

Despite prevailing 43-40 over Baylor on October 13, West Virginia allowed the Bears to gain 204 yards after receptions in that contest.

Most recently, in last Saturday’s 48-10 loss at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders gained a preposterous 233 of their 355 passing yards following the catch.

“It’s a simple fundamental of tackling,” WVU defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley said. “You see it across the board in the game now. The biggest thing I see and I’ve always talked about is keeping your feet moving through contact. That’s probably the biggest negative. A lot of times, our guys make a physical hit, but if your feet die, it’s like cutting your engine off in your car. It dies right there. It’s a fundamental issue and if I go back and watch Saturday, that’s what it was.”

Against the Red Raiders, one of the more noticeable plays that West Virginia struggled in that regard came early in the third quarter in a sudden change sequence. 

Two plays after Malik Dunlap intercepted JT Daniels, Texas Tech faced second-and-7 from its own 45-yard line. Quarterback Behren Morton threw to Xavier White, who hauled in the pass at the Mountaineers’ 38 between defensive backs Malachi Ruffin and Aubrey Burks.

With Burks behind White and Ruffin in front of him, the latter was in position to make the tackle. However, Ruffin over pursued, allowing White to elude him, before the Red Raiders wideout made a cut at the 33-yard line that enabled him to escape free from potential tacklers Marcis Floyd and Jasir Cox.

Following the loss, WVU head coach Neal Brown suggested he would need to review the tape before offering judgment on his team’s effort level.

Brown offered insight into what the tape showed Tuesday.

“Defensively, we didn’t chase the ball as well as we needed to,” he said. “We got consumed on some blocks in the fourth quarter. Some of that was who we had in there. It’s probably a natural tendency when things aren’t going well, you try to do more to make a play. That really makes it worse, especially on defense. 

“If you get out of your gap or your eye discipline is not good in the secondary because you’re trying to make a play or force a play, you give up a bunch of plays and that’s what we did. Was our effort bad? No. Was it good enough? I don’t think so either. But more of the ills on defense were instead of doing our job, trying to make a play.”

Fatigue likely also hampered WVU’s defense, which was on the field for 103 plays against the Red Raiders’ fast-paced attack. 

The Mountaineers went into the matchup with several injuries and though cornerback Charles Woods returned to the lineup on a limited snap count, Wesley McCormick missed the contest and fellow corner Rashad Ajayi didn’t finish it as a result of injuries. Spear Lance Dixon also left with an injury and both he and Ajayi have been ruled out for Saturday’s noon game against No. 7 TCU.

“You have to play however many plays that you play, but by the second series of the third quarter, we played as many plays as we’ve played in any game this year,” Lesley said. “Certain pieces start to dwindle off and it’s still not going the way you want it to go. I thought we lost a little juice and when you lose that, you lose aggressiveness. When you lose aggressiveness, you lose the fundamentals that it takes to play downhill and tackle that way, it all snowballs into the end and the result is what it is.”

White’s 55-yard reception was the longest play of the game and he was responsible for the Red Raiders’ two other longest pass plays of 29 and 27 yards. 

Yet much of Tech’s yardage after receptions came on quick pass plays designed to get the ball to playmakers on the perimeter with space to operate.

In those instances, Brown felt tackling wasn’t as much of an issue as the lack of aggressiveness that Lesley noted.

The Mountaineers hope to get it corrected before the Horned Frogs bring their high-flying attack to Milan Puskar Stadium.

“We have to play closer to them. We can’t make this an easy catch-throw,” Brown said. “It’s kind of like a basketball player that gets fouled early and gets to make some free throws or gets a layup. Then you’re in a rhythm. It’s the same thought process for a quarterback. If you give them layups, they get in a rhythm, their confidence builds and they feel like they can make all the throws. We have to make it harder on the quarterback. We didn’t make it hard enough on the quarterback on Saturday.”

TCU is sure to provide a stern challenge Saturday for a defense seeking a turnaround.

The Horned Frogs are No. 3 in scoring offense at 44.7 points. Their 295 passing yards on average ranks No. 20 nationally, and the success through the air is made more likely by a strong rushing attack that’s gaining better than 227 yards on average — the 12th best mark among FBS teams.

In quarterback Max Duggan, wide receiver Quentin Johnston and tailback Kendre Miller, TCU has a skill position trio that measures up to any in college football. The Horned Frogs enter averaging 8 yards after the catch.

“The biggest thing for me when we came back in on Sunday was I just didn’t think we played very aggressive whether in pressure, coverage or no matter what it is,” Lesley said. “We have to be better.”

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