CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Tony Gibson sat down to do a TV spot with the CBS crew prior to Saturday’s season-opener against Tennessee, but unsurprisingly to Gibson, the questions really had nothing to do with his defense.
“They asked me one question about the defense and the rest was about what it’s like to go up against that offense every day in practice,” the West Virginia defensive coordinator said. “I used that for a little fuel for the fire.”
All of the hype coming into this season was about quarterback Will Grier and his duo of dynamic receivers, David Sills and Gary Jennings. The big-play ability of the offense is the biggest reason the Mountaineers were a top 20 preseason pick.
But Gibson and the WVU defense used the nationally-televised showcase to show that his group is not the same one that finished 109th in total defense a year ago in a 40-14 win for the Mountaineers in front of 66,793 fans at Bank of America Stadium.
From the first snap, when grad transfer nose tackle Kenny Bigelow blew through the Volunteers offensive line and hit quarterback Jarrett Guarantano for a backward pass and five-yard loss, the Mountaineers (1-0) looked like 2017 was in the distant past.
“I don’t think people respect our defense for a lot of different reasons – a lot of it was self-inflicted from a year ago and we’ve put that behind us and we’re moving on,” Gibson said.
Tennessee finished with 301 total yards, 213 of those coming on three drives out of the Vols’ 10 total. Backup running back Tim Jordan had 116 yards rushing, which was one of the few blemishes on what was a relatively painless night for Gibson.
“I thought we played the run really well early, they had about 40 yards on 24 carries at the half,” Gibson said. “In the second half, we gave up a couple cheap ones, but I thought the kids buckled down. When we were winning on first down, they struggled a little bit. We got them on their heels on first down and on second down, we had them behind the chains. That’s when we were able to get some pressure on him and attack a little bit.”
WVU finished with 12 tackles for loss, led by sophomore Darius Stills, with 2 ½. Bigelow and Reese Donahue each added two.
Gibson even tried something a little different in the second quarter when linebacker Charlie Benton went down with a knee injury – a four-man front. Known for his 3-3-5 stack, he added an extra nose tackle to take reps off backup Sam linebacker Shea Campbell.
“We didn’t want to give Shea that many snaps so we tried to rotate him in and out as best we could, so we put four guys out there on the D-line,” Gibson said. “We’re deep at D-line and we’re not-so-deep at linebacker. We’ve got three guys right now that we’re counting on playing. If we had an injury, I knew that would be an issue.”
Still, coach Dana Holgorsen wasn’t thrilled with the critical down defense in the first half. On The Vols’ 8:47 scoring drive in the second quarter, they converted three third downs and gave up an easy fourth-down touchdown to end it.
“We had a hard time (with critical downs) – there were two possessions where we had a hard time getting off the field and they drove down and scored twice,” Holgorsen said. “I was not happy with that. We played good defense, just the critical downs weren’t what we wanted them to be. The reason the game was as close as it was in the first half (13-7 halftime) was because simply that.”
Gibson will take the overall effort, though, before moving on to next week.
“I’m anxious to get in there tomorrow and correct some things, but we’re going to enjoy this one tonight, that’s for sure.”