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West Virginia’s defense continues to impress through four weeks

MORGANTOWN — At this rate, there’s a chance that ESPN will recognize West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s face by the end of the season.
The network’s crew calling Saturday’s game misidentified a member of WVU’s support staff as Gibson on multiple occasions during the Mountaineers’ 35-6 win over Kansas State. But even if Gibson can’t get noticed, his defense can.
West Virginia is tied with Utah for the title of America’s stingiest defense, allowing just 12.3 points per game through the first three games of the season.
It’ll be tough for West Virginia to maintain its position atop the national rankings with Texas Tech’s explosive offense looming. The Red Raiders are fifth in the country with an average of 52 points per game.
Even though he’s well aware of the challenge WVU faces, Dana Holgorsen thinks his guys are capable of defending the Red Raiders better than most.
“Their offense is not a whole lot different from what we do,” Holgorsen said. “It’s not like this is foreign to us. I’ve given Gibby a lot of the same stuff. We know how to defend it. It’s going to be fun to line up and see what happens.”
Since joining the Big 12 in 2012, West Virginia has never finished better than 35th nationally in scoring defense. That feat was accomplished in 2016, when the Mountaineers allowed 24 points per game.
Last year, WVU dipped all the way down to 90th with 31.5 points surrendered per game.
Holgorsen said this year’s rebound has a lot to do with veteran leadership as well as the continuity provided by Gibson and his position coaches.
“There’s a lot of things that go into it. Great staff continuity. It helps to run the same defense five, six years in a row,” Holgorsen said. “We haven’t had a whole lot of turnover with the assistants. They’re speaking the same language. Players have heard the same thing over the course of their career.”
The junior- and senior-heavy defense is also playing with a lot of speed and pride.
“The older guys, it’s important to them,” Holgorsen said. “And we’ve got a couple pretty good players, as well.”
The biggest difference from last season is on the line, where the Mountaineers are able to rotate six players on their three-man front.
“D-linemen are getting involved, which is making this thing fun to watch,” Holgorsen said. “The amount of snaps we’re asking these guys to play this year is so much less. We were in that situation [without depth] on the D-line last year with very inexperienced, immature kids.”
Junior defensive lineman Reese Donahue can vouch for the difference in how he feels this season. Donahue is playing half to two-thirds as many snaps each game this year.
“There were times where I was averaging 60 plays last year,” Donahue said. “Toward the end of the year, I was dog-tired. Everyone on that D-line was dog-tired. At the end of a long drive, you’d just hop on to ride the offensive lineman, or they put someone else in and they blew a hole and ran right through you.
“Now, you can trust everyone on this D-line. I have confidence in everybody.”
Twitter @bigahickey