WVU’s primary defensive issue was – again – its secondary. It wasn’t an abhorrent performance by the much-maligned – and often ostracized – unit. The Mountaineers, in the 24-17 win, held William and Mary to one passing touchdown and an average of 7.7 yards per completion. Tribe quarterback Michael Graham completed 18 of 27 passing (66.6 percent), but managed just 75 yards after the break. And the defensive backfield actually helped seal the win with safety Darwin Cook’s interception with 3:09 remaining.
But when WVU got beat, it got beat by the same issues that plagued it last season: lack of discipline and the inability to locate the ball while in the air. Cook got caught looking in the backfield on a fake end around late in the third quarter. The senior sucked up in run support, allowing William and Mary wideout Tre McBride to run free under a 40-yard pass from Graham that set-up a missed 42-yard field goal. Fellow safety Karl Joseph could have had a first half interception near the north end zone, but didn’t play the ball adequately and gave up a 28-yard completion – again from Graham to McBride – that put the Tribe at the two and helped lead to the 14-7 deficit.
Corner Ismael Banks nearly got beat on a slightly overthrown fade route in the south end zone, and had zero idea where the ball was. That was one play after a 40-yard gainer (McBride again) on which he was defending, but again couldn’t locate the deep ball because of failing to turn and look. Two plays later, William and Mary tied the game at 7-7 on Graham’s lone score. Counterpart Travis Bell committed a personal foul on a deep ball down the visiting sidelines late in the third quarter. Bell, to his credit, had decent position, but chose to grab jersey instead of merely defend. Result? A first down and significantly better field position. Bell did help snuff the drive three plays later when he dropped Kendall Anderson after a 12-yard gain on third and 22.
West Virginia did bottle the run adequately, and once it shored itself up at halftime, it became a much more stout unit. Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said he was proud of the way the defense played, as a whole, save for the issues when players got caught looking in the backfield.
“Obviously, in the first half, there were some nerves,” said Patterson, whose 3-4 scheme allowed 309 total yards, but just 108 in a second half shutout. “It was a little shocking. We busted some assignments. The (McBride) kid made three really, really good catches and was in position. They made the play and we didn’t. Oncce we got our feet on the ground in the second half, you could tell our kids were much more comfortable. We kept telling them, look, don’t play outside the framework of the defense. In the first half we had way too many busted assignments and gave up a few vertical shots. … It caught me off-guard. I didn’t expect some of those nerves to be there.”
Linebacker Isaiah Bruce estimated that WVU operated in approximately 70 percent base, with a few nickel and blitz packages mixed in. So the vanilla approach could excuse some of William and Mary’s ability to methodically move the ball. But it doesn’t excuse the lack of discipline, especially from seasoned players like Cook. And if, indeed, those players are going to take on significantly more – as Patterson said when noting WVU “didn’t do much with Cook” in terms of various packages – in the upcoming game against Oklahoma, those players must exhibit better control and fundamental play.
There were other issues as well. West Virginia struggled at the point of attack for most of the first half before overcoming the lackadaisical attitude and being the aggressor. It didn’t put much pressure on the Tribe, though that, too, is understandable because William and Mary was in max protect and was in a lot of 21 sets, or two backs and one tight end – i.e. a run formation. Solid red zone play selection was another feather in the Tribe’s cap, especially the third and goal rollout call that limited the field and gave Graham multiple options on varying secondary levels and tied the game at 7-7. William and Mary was smart, it limited its own mistakes and challenged WVU just enough through two quarters, then seemed to go into a bit of a shell late, which was partially caused by the Mountaineers.
All that considered, it was a solid outing. It certainly wasn’t spectacular, and there’s considerable teaching and corrections to make before the outing at Oklahoma. But it’s week one. West Virginia is 1-0. An uninspiring 1-0, perhaps, but 1-0 nonetheless. And it has blocks upon which to build.
“Just do what you’re coached to do,” Patterson said. “There’s no magic call you can make. There’s no great adjustment. How about do what you’re coached to do. They did (in the second half) and you saw the result. No one panicked. We just kept doing what we do. It showed our kids to trust in each other and trust in the system. We had guys trying to make plays before they were taking care of their responsibilities. … When I was at Pitt, we struggled with Buffalo and Maine, and we got better and better as the season progressed. When we go out to Oklahoma, heck, nobody things we are any good anyway. What have we got to lose?”