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Country Roads: Resilient West Virginia defense can lead to greatness

Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire

The West Virginia Mountaineers, leading 35-32, faced a first and goal at the BYU Cougars’ four-yard line. If the Mountaineers scored a touchdown, they would have clinched their Saturday game in the closing minutes of regulation. However, that wasn’t the outcome West Virginia produced.

Instead of putting the game out of reach with less than three minutes left, the Mountaineers fumbled and the Cougars recovered the ball. That gave BYU life, and a chance to either score a field goal to send the contest into overtime or steal a victory right from under West Virginia’s nose with a touchdown.

The Mountaineers’ defense didn’t exactly play fierce offenses in their first two outings of this season. Although Missouri has put up staggering numbers against weaker opponents, the Tigers don’t possess the same firepower they used to when they were in the Big 12. Youngstown State is an FCS team.

Even though BYU hadn’t put up eye-popping scores in its previous outings–18 against Arizona, 19 versus Utah and a mere 14 against UCLA–the Cougar offense was the best offense the Mountaineer defense had faced so far in the 2016 season.

Entering this year, West Virginia’s defense was littered with question marks and was seen as the weakness of this Mountaineer team.

How were the Mountaineers going to replace all three starting linebackers? How were they going to replace their former stud safety, Karl Joseph? So many more questions needed to be answered about this defense.

In the last three minutes against BYU, the West Virginia defense showed a level of backbone which should change how this unit is viewed.

Early on in that BYU drive, the Cougars were moving with ease. A 29-yard pass and then an eight-yard run moved BYU to the West Virginia 28. The Cougars called a timeout. The play out of that timeout paints the picture of why this West Virginia defense should no longer be seen as a weakness.

Cougar signal-caller Taysom Hill dropped back to pass. He lofted a pass toward one of his receivers near the end zone. Instead of the ball hitting the BYU receiver’s hands, it hit and met West Virginia defensive back Maurice Fleming’s gloves.

Interception.

That pick by Fleming gave the Mountaineers a 35-32 win over the Cougars and moved them to 3-0. That West Virginia defense bailed out its offense and put it in position to succeed all game long.

While the defense did carry its weight in the Mountaineers’ win, as head coach Dana Holgorsen pointed out in his postgame press conference, it wasn’t all that flashy.

 

The Mountaineers still had some pass rush issues, and the secondary allowed too many yards through the air. Saturday’s performance at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, showed that West Virginia’s defense plays a bend-but-don’t-break style. Such an identity is not imposing, but in the Big 12 — where allowing lots of yards but relatively few touchdowns will generally carry the day — that style can lead a team to a championship.

The Big 12 is seen as an offensive league. If your favorite team doesn’t have an high-octane offense, it will probably not succeed in the conference. West Virginia has the horses to contend with some of the best offenses in the nation, because it is No. 13 in the country in yards per game and near the top 50 in points per game. Just as important, however, is the ability to field a defense that has shown a clutch gene. That bodes well for the Mountaineers.

Typically, the most complete team wins the Big 12. Looking at all the members of the conference, West Virginia is one of two teams–Baylor is the other–that looks like a complete group. Both sides of the ball have performed well throughout the first third of the college football year for the Mountaineers, unlike Big 12 foes Texas, Oklahoma and TCU.

If this West Virginia defense can continue to display resilience inside its own 30-yard line, the Mountaineers can achieve greatness for 2016: a Big 12 title, maybe even a College Football Playoff spot, who knows. With this defense and Holgorsen’s improving offense, the sky’s the limit for the Mountaineers entering October.

Everything seems possible.

Almost Heaven.

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