Culture change underway at West Virginia

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- At a recent practice, on the first play of a scrimmage, West Virginia's offense did what West Virginia's offense does: connected for a long pass play.

Echoing from the sidelines, though, were comments that brought a smile to co-defensive coordinator Joe DeForest's face, despite the struggles from the past play.

"Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about it," teammates yelled. "Move on to the next one. Move on to the next one."

On the second play, the defense forced a sack.

"When kids start repeating what you’re saying out loud, you know they’re listening to you," DeForest told ESPN.com in a recent interview.

What West Virginia's coaches are saying out loud? A brand-new philosophy and culture for the defense.

The Mountaineers will encounter plenty of new faces, places and experiences in the Big 12, but it doesn't take a pigskin prodigy to see the biggest difference will come in the offenses WVU's defense will match up against.

West Virginia led the Big East in total offense in 2011, but only one other team (South Florida) ranked in the national top 60.

Meanwhile, the Big 12 had two of the nation's top three offenses, and six of the top 13. Missouri and Texas A&M were in the top 13 and will play in the SEC in 2012, but TCU brings the nation's No. 28 offense to the Big 12.

A new Mountaineer mindset was needed, and the spring in Morgantown was bent on pounding that into the defense.

"Guys that put their heads down when they give up a big play are going to be in for a long year when they get to the Big 12," coach Dana Holgorsen said. "You’ve got to develop that culture, which is taking place now."

There's no shame in giving up a big play, and nowhere on DeForest's list of goals is a ranking for total defense. After a decade at Oklahoma State, he's learned to focus on more applicable goals.

West Virginia's defense focuses on a three-letter acronym: EAT. DeForest demands Effort, Attitude and ... Turnovers.

"If we can create turnovers like I did at the previous place I was at, that gives you an advantage. It gives your offense possibly three more possessions a game than they would have," DeForest said. "Whether our numbers are good or not doesn’t really concern me. My numbers are wins and losses and how many turnovers we can get so our explosive offense can have another opportunity to score."

Oklahoma State forced 44 turnovers in 2011, six more than any other team in college football. Those wins and losses? The Cowboys went a hearty 12-1 and won the Big 12, even though they ranked 107th nationally in total defense.

Mission accomplished.

Every day in practice, co-coordinators DeForest and and Keith Patterson demand three turnovers from the defense, and the total number for the spring is compared to a goal set when the 15 practices began.

Not only are Big 12 offenses better, they're run at a faster pace. That means more plays for the defense, which requires DeForest and Patterson to develop more depth, while also making sure the players ready to play are better conditioned.

Four Big 12 teams ran at least 1,000 plays in 2011. Three more ran at least 972.

West Virginia ran 959 plays in 2011, but no other Big East team ran more than 944. Half the league ran fewer than 900.

More plays and better offenses means defenses better learn a new understanding of what to expect come Saturdays.

"It’s not about what happens, it’s about how you react to what happens. You’ve just got to forget the last play and move on to the next one, because the next one’s the most important one," DeForest said. "Whoever we’re playing, they’ve got good guys, too. They’re going to make a play. Just give ourselves a chance to play one more play. Get ‘em down and give ourselves a chance to create a turnover on the next play."

West Virginia's not only thinking differently, it's playing differently. The 3-3-5 that's been in place at West Virginia throughout its rise has been replaced by the 3-4 after coordinator Jeff Casteel left to follow former coach Rich Rodriguez to Arizona.

"We hired guys that understand how to stop our offense and how to play defense [against] an offense like this, which obviously exists in the Big 12 a lot," Holgorsen said. "It’s made us better offensively, because they know how to stop us, and those guys are doing a tremendous job on communicating how to get guys lined up quick, which you have to do when Baylor and Oklahoma are snapping that thing at 32 seconds on the play clock."

In the 3-4, offensive lines are pressed to communicate. Three defensive linemen are traditionally down in a stance, but offenses are ideally kept guessing where the fourth, fifth and sixth rushers will be coming from.

"The flexibility, what we have within our scheme, and our players can help us disguise and create confusion," DeForest said.

The means and attitude are different. The goal is the same.

"You can’t be moaning about what happened last. You’ve got to refocus and move on. Our kids are trying to do that," DeForest said. "Ultimately, it’s making one more stop than [the opponent] at the end of the game."