WVU’s defense has regressed to its 2022 form

MORGANTOWN — A large reason for WVU’s four-game winning streak earlier this season was that its defense was playing much better than it had during the 2022 season.

Since the Mountaineers’ bye week, however, that defense has regressed to its 2022 form, leading to two straight losses for West Virginia.

In those four wins, WVU was allowing just 14.25 points per game. In the last two losses, that number has exploded to 44.5 points per game. In seven losses last season, WVU allowed 42.7 points per game.

“We hold ourselves to a standard and we have to uphold that,” safety Anthony Wilson said after Saturday’s 48-34 loss to Oklahoma State. “We know our potential so we’re just going to keep working at it.”

It’s not just that the Mountaineers are allowing more points, WVU’s yards per play, quarterback completions and third-down defense have all regressed to their dreadful 2022 levels.

In its four wins this year, WVU allowed 4.34 yards per play. That has ballooned to 7.25 over the last two weeks. Houston averaged 9.37 yards per passing play while Oklahoma State averaged 8.52 yards per run. 

“We just missed a bunch of tackles and ran by the ball,” head coach Neal Brown said of Saturday’s run defense. “That’s what it looked like from the sideline. We ran right by the ball and missed tackles.”

In last year’s losses, opponents averaged 6.49 yards per play against the Mountaineers.

WVU’s defense excelled on third downs earlier this year, holding opponents to just a 27% conversion rate during its winning streak. Houston and OSU converted 11 of 23 third downs (47.8%) in the last two weeks. Victorious opponents converted 50.5% of their third downs against WVU in 2022.

Like third-down defense, WVU’s red-zone defense was stellar during its four-game winning streak. WVU’s opponents scored just 25 total points in the red zone in that stretch. Houston and Oklahoma State have combined for 48 in the last two weeks alone. The opposition averaged 24.3 red-zone points per game in victories against WVU last year.

Finally, the Mountaineers’ pass coverage, much maligned in 2022, has yet again become a problem. Opponents completed 59.3% of passes against WVU last season. During WVU’s four-game winning streak, opposing WBs were only completing 44/9% of their passes, but that number has ballooned to 71.4% over the last two weeks.

Houston quarterback Donovan Smith completed his final 16 pass attempts against WVU, including the game-winning Hail Mary. Oklahoma State’s Alan Bowman had a stretch where he completed 14 of 17 passes on Saturday.

“At the end of the day, we’re still out there and we need to get the job done no matter what,” Wilson said. “It was really just self-inflicted things we know we could’ve done better. We’ve got to clean up, that’s the biggest thing.”

WVU’s next test is the top offense in the Big 12 in terms of yardage, UCF (noon/FS1).

The Knights are averaging a conference-best 499.6 yards per game. They are second in the league in rushing yards (1,627), just two yards behind Kansas State, and sixth in passing yards (1,870). In addition to the yards, UCF is fifth in the Big 12 averaging 34.1 points per game.

With starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee back from an injury, UCF threw for 248 yards and ran for 149 in a close, 31-29, loss to Oklahoma on Saturday.