6:00: Morning News

Defense finds more success on third down through its ability to create uncomfortable distances, mix and match personnel

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The significant improvement West Virginia’s defense has shown over the opening month of the season is as important a factor as any as to why the Mountaineers carry a three-game win streak into Saturday night’s showdown at TCU.

Over their last two games, the Mountaineers have allowed one touchdown and 19 points, stifling Pitt and Texas Tech to the point West Virginia defeated both despite failing to pass for 100 yards on both occasions and combining for 467 total yards.

“The last two games, you could maybe call them ugly, but that’s kind of beautiful from an offensive lineman’s perspective,” center Zach Frazier said. “Run the ball, controlling the game. I like that. No matter how it happens, a win is a win.”

If the two most recent outings are beautiful from Frazier’s perspective, they’d have to be equally, if not more alluring to defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley.

After West Virginia struggled defensively throughout a 5-7 season in 2022, the Mountaineers are generating a more consistent pass rush, getting strong play from linebackers that were unknown with the exception of returning leading tackler Lee Kpogba and doing a better job at avoiding coverage breakdowns that too often led to big plays.

“Nothing is more valuable than experience. That’s experience in the scheme of your defense as opposed to where they’ve come from,” Lesley said. “It takes a little bit of time. It’s just continuing to improve on what we’re doing. The kids are playing better. Simple as that.”

The Mountaineers made no bones about needing to improve their tackling, and thus far, they’ve done just that.

Increased physicality throughout preseason camp also appears to be paying off.

“We’re tackling better than last year. We’re playing harder,” Kpogba said. “We’re more hungry this year considering that we didn’t get the results we wanted last year. We didn’t play that well last year on defense and we wanted to improve.”

West Virginia hasn’t forced a turnover in two of four games, but already has five interceptions after picking off four passes all of last season.

The defense has also been especially productive on third downs, with opponents converting at a 25 percent rate (14 for 56). Texas Tech was 2-for-18 on third down and 5-for-8 on fourth down, meaning the Mountaineers stopped the Red Raiders on 19 of 26 drive-ending scenarios.

“It was a complete reversal of a year ago,” head coach Neal Brown said. “They’ve seen those stats. We put them in front of them every single day. Texas Tech was 15-of-20 on third and fourth downs in Lubbock last year and we didn’t get off the field. We reversed that. It’s a prideful group. A prideful defensive staff and prideful defensive players.”

One week earlier, Pitt was 4 for 13 on third down and failed to convert both of its fourth-down attempts.

“A big difference,” Brown said. “We’re doing a better job in our zone coverages and some of our eight and seven-man drops, we’re doing a better job of covering people. We’re creating more pressure as well whether we’re sending three, four or five. We’re getting in some more friendly down and distances, which means we’re better on first-and-10, and we’re getting teams in more third-and-longs.”

Sep 23, 2023; Morgantown, West Virginia, USA; West Virginia Mountaineers safety Aubrey Burks (2) breaks up a pass intended for Texas Tech Red Raiders wide receiver Loic Fouonji (11) during the second quarter at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Even through the first two games, when WVU’s defense wasn’t as stingy or productive as what it’s shown in two contests since, the Mountaineers held Penn State to 3-for-9 on third down and Duquesne to 5-for-16.

By preventing opponents from converting third downs 75 percent of the time, West Virginia is tied with Michigan for seventh nationally.

A year ago, WVU opponents generated a first down on 66 of 162 third downs, leaving the Mountaineers 86th among 131 FBS teams with their 40.7 conversion rate.

The Mountaineers’ pass rush, which has yielded seven sacks and 14 quarterback hurries, has been critical in allowing the defense to get off the field at a far higher rate. WVU opponents also have seven sacks, but only three quarterback hurries.

“First down is always key in that,” Lesley said. “It’s getting them off schedule and behind the chains. When we do, it’s really just been great team defense and everything working together, whether it’s something we play in coverage, simulating pressure or bringing pressure. The guys feed off each other. They hold each other accountable. Guys like Aubrey Burks, Lee Kpogba, Jared Bartlett — they know more people’s jobs than their own, so they’re able to communicate and look around. That’s probably been the biggest difference.”

On certain third downs, West Virginia has enjoyed the luxury of mixing and matching personnel to better fit a situation. That could mean playing two bandits (such as Jared Bartlett and Tyrin Bradley) together. It could be moving safety Marcis Floyd around to where he’s at spear or cornerback in a nickel package. It can also mean turning up the heat in pass-rushing packages by utilizing Tomiwa Durojaiye, Davoan Hawkins, Jalen Thornton or Asani Redwood.

“It gives you a little more ability to get the guys you need to be on the field while still being able to fit things that you may see that people like to do to you in a sub package,” Lesley said. “People saw us use both the bandit and a spur in that package. It’s pretty simple what we’re asking them to do. It’s no different than coverage structure. It’s having the best guys for what the situation is on the field at the same time.”

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