NORMAN — Playing defense in the Big 12 Conference is hard.
So they say.
West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson doesn’t necessarily attach himself to that particular excuse.
“Tony Gibson,” said WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen, is “doing a good job. His staff’s doing a good job.”
The Mountaineers are 6-0 overall and 3-0 in Big 12 play ahead of Saturday’s visit to Oklahoma State.
Statistically, West Virginia’s defense ranks just third among Big 12 teams in total yards allowed, but while front-runner Baylor was playing the likes of Northwestern State and Rice, WVU was playing Missouri and BYU. In conference play, Baylor’s defense has fattened up on Kansas and Iowa State, while the Mountaineers were bunkering down against TCU and Texas Tech.
West Virginia is yielding only 17.8 points per game and 392 total yards per game this season. The Mountaineers rank fourth in the league against the run, fourth against the pass and second in pass efficiency defense.
WVU hasn’t been particularly dominant in any one category. They don’t have a ton of sacks (eighth in the Big 12) or interceptions (third), they aren’t all that great on third down (ninth) or in the red zone (fifth).
So what, then, do the Mountaineers do?
“They’re making some good plays,” said OU coach Bob Stoops.
It’s those TCU and Texas Tech games that stand out.
While Oklahoma was giving up 514 yards and 46 points in a tense victory over the Horned Frogs and 854 yards (you read that right) and 59 points in another tight triumph over the Red Raiders, West Virginia’s defense dominated those high-flying offenses.
Against WVU, Texas Tech managed just 379 yards and 17 points in Lubbock. A week later in Morgantown, TCU totaled only 300 yards and 10 points.
Tech is averaging 50 points and 640 yards per game this season. TCU is averaging 36 points and 498 yards.
Holgorsen said while WVU’s defense lost plenty of talent off last year’s team to the NFL, this year’s group still has good experience. Also, junior college transfers have panned out nicely.
“We replaced ‘em with guys that are pretty capable as well,” Holgorsen said. “I don’t see a whole lot different.”
West Virginia’s success seems to boil down to the simplicity of effective tackling and effort — two things that are severely lacking on the OU defense.
“They have a great defense,” Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said of the Mountaineers, “a really senior-laden group that’s playing well.”
When I asked him about it Monday on the Big 12 coaches teleconference, TCU coach Gary Patterson offered a little more detail.
“What West Virginia’s been able to do, they’re able to stop people with a three-man front and then they’re up putting people in the box,” Patterson said. “They’re playing what I’d call a 2-cloud system, where they’re playing a deep safety on each side with a ‘robber’ in between, and they’re rolling people around and doing a good job of either dropping eight and playing some of those kinds of coverage or bringing everybody. So what you have to do is make sure you can prepare for both and keep it off balance.
“The other thing I think they’re doing is they’re playing together, they’re physical and they’re playing smart. And any time you do that, you’re gonna give yourself a lot of opportunity to be successful. They’re playing with a lot of confidence right now. I think Gibby’s done a great job.”
At least Bob Stoops can address the former.
“We tried four-man rush, we tried three-man rush and we tried five-man rush (against Tech). We tried man, we tried zone. We mixed them all up,” Stoops said. “We did about everything you could do. We’ve gotta be able to complete plays.”
The latter, however, playing together, being physical and playing smart — playing hard, to be sure — may be out of Stoops’ hands.
Or maybe, commensurate with his $5.5 million salary, that is exactly what Stoops needs to take on.
Forget the man coverage or zone discussion, forget the odd front/even front debate, forget the intricacies of when to blitz and when to cover. Maybe Stoops should just put himself in front of his players and his coaches and set his jaw and stomp his foot and simply demand better — demand the Oklahoma standard that clearly has not been met, hold his defensive coordinator brother accountable, get in the assistants’ faces, bench the loafers, call out the leaders.
Nobody gets off easy.
The Oklahoma defense must look at itself in the mirror.
On Tuesday, linebacker Jordan Evans was asked about the players’ lack of effort that led to so many big plays by the Tech offense.
“I can speak for myself: it was terrible.” Evans told reporters after practice. “That’s not what a captain should do. That’s not what a football player should do. That has to change, and it’s going to change and it’s never going to be shown again.
“During a game, you don’t realize you’re doing it until you go watch the film, and then coming in on Monday it was just a different ballgame for everybody out there.”
Evans said the team’s lack of effort on Saturday was actually visible leading up to the game.
“Yeah, I mean, you practice how you play,” Evans said. “The energy and effort wasn’t that great last week in practice so it definitely showed against Texas Tech.”
Mike Stoops agreed.
“I just don’t think we were ready for that type of shot that we got the other night,” Stoops said. “We didn’t prepare as well as we should have prepared throughout the course of the week.”
Should one of college football’s highest-paid coaching staffs be able to recognize that before game day? Probably.
Safety Steven Parker said “effort issues” are usually taken care of by the players, by the team leaders. But that’s actually part of the problem. This defense lost so many strong leaders off last year’s team — Eric Striker, Charles Tapper, Zack Sanchez, Dominique Alexander — and this team’s lack of on-field leadership continues to surface.
Leaders think they’re leading. Instead, they see on film they were loafing.
“Even if it’s a leader — myself, Ahmad, Jordan Evans, if it’s any one of us — we’re harping on it, we’re getting onto each other about it,” Parker said. “We’ll look at effort. We count loafs and all that stuff as far as the defense goes.
“I wouldn’t say there is any panic whatsoever in our room. Pride definitely comes in, but that’s something else: pride is something that can be taken away but also something that can be given back.”
It’s hard to believe this question needs to be asked, but can Oklahoma’s defense be more like West Virginia’s defense?
“They’re fun to coach,” Gibson told reporters Saturday after holding TCU four touchdowns and 200 yards below its season averages. “They get it. They come in and they work.
“Guys find a way. They keep plugging along. I told the coaches in the locker room, ‘I don’t know how we keep doing it.’ These guys are resilient. They’re playing well right now.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.