Resilient Mountaineers defense becomes one of the Big 12's best

A West Virginia defense that had hoped to earn a reputation as the Big 12’s best was in shambles.

It had lost its best player in safety Karl Joseph. Offenses were having consistent success moving the ball against it. And it had given up more points in each game during a winless October than it had during the entire month of September.

Something needed to change.

“We had a senior meeting and said, ‘What are the things we need to work on?’” senior defensive tackle Kyle Rose said of the meeting which followed a four game stretch which included losses to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU and Baylor.

The answer was simple.

“The key was getting back to the basics,” Rose said. “The fundamentals of tackling, pursuit to the ball and effort. We needed to play with a chip on our shoulder, with an edge to our defense.”

To make matters worse, one of the early favorites for Big 12 defensive player of the year, West Virginia's Karl Joseph, was lost for the season in the second week of October. Joseph, who remains tied for second in the Big 12 with five interceptions despite playing just four games as a senior, was the heart and soul of the Mountaineers' defense.

“For what Karl means to our football team, our defense and our secondary, you can’t replace a guy like him,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “He was well on his way to being an All-American. To lose him, when we lost him and how we lost him, it was tough for everybody.”

Joseph never returned but the edge Rose was referring to did eventually resurface. So did the good results. After a October stretch that saw West Virginia allowing 2.63 points per drive and 6.75 yards per play, the Mountaineers have been the Big 12’s best defense in November, allowing 0.95 points per drive and 4.4 yards per play.

“They’re very resilient,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “It would have been easy for a lot of these guys to cash in after that four-game stretch but what they’ve done is kept working, kept practicing and kept believing. When you go through a losing streak it shows the bad side of a lot of people but these guys were consistent throughout. I think it bonded these guys closer together as a football team”

True enough the Mountaineers’ October competition was on a different level than they’ve seen in November. The Big 12's top four teams defeated the Mountaineers during October while the November stretch featured Texas Tech, Texas, Kansas and Iowa State.

Yet it was the matchup with the Red Raiders that showed West Virginia’s defense still had the ability to shine. Gibson’s defense held Tech to 2.36 points per drive, more than half of a point less than its 3.07 season average, and a season-low 4.85 yards per play. Kliff Kingsbury’s team features one of the nation’s top offenses with Tech sitting at No. 7 among FBS teams in points per drive and No. 6 among FBS teams with 7.12 yards per play.

“That was a big game for us,” Gibson said. “We had to win that one to get some confidence back. We couldn’t afford to lose a fifth straight. From that point on we haven’t looked back.”

The Mountaineers have been particularly opportunistic during their four-game winning streak after October. Only North Carolina State (14) has forced more turnovers than West Virginia’s 13 since October as the Mountaineers used turnovers and defensive touchdowns to jump start wins over Texas and Kansas. Dana Holgorsen’s team spends two different periods per practice focusing on turnovers and it has paid off as West Virginia rallied to become bowl eligible and one win away from finishing 8-4 heading into Saturday’s road trip to Manhattan, Kansas.

“We’ve been doing that all season but it’s finally coming to a head now,” Rose said. “It’s bearing its fruit in how hard we’ve been working at it. We’re seeing those gains from our efforts. Good things happen when you rally around the football.”

Rose, as a senior with 49 career games and 31 career starts, played a major role in turning the season around. He takes pride in being on a squad that could end up with a nine-win season and the best record ever by a Mountaineer team in the Big 12. And the Mountaineer defense has played a key role, ranking No. 2 in points per drive (1.5) and No. 4 in yards per play (5.38) in the Big 12 heading into their regular season finale at Kansas State on Saturday.

“I think we’re a pretty resilient group of guys,” Rose said. “When the cards all fall out, I think I’d want to have the guys I’ve been with the four or five years here, I want to have them in my corner, especially when the cards are down.”