MORGANTOWN — Before he even coached a game at WVU, Neal Brown sat down with his staff and discussed what needed to change in order for the Mountaineers to compete for Big 12 championships.
Under the previous staff with Dana Holgorsen, WVU came close to reaching the Big 12 championship and winning the league twice, in 2016 and 2018, but overall, the philosophy was to outscore everyone, including perennial conference-favorite Oklahoma.
It wasn’t just WVU’s problem at the time, but it was the identity of the Big 12 as a whole.
Look no further than Holgorsen’s last Big 12 game in 2018, a 59-56 loss to OU at Milan Puskar Stadium.
Three years later, the final against the Sooners looked quite different, albeit finishing in a 3-point loss. Last Saturday’s 16-13 defeat for the Mountaineers showed a continuation for what has been rolling for nearly two years now — the WVU defense is one of the best not only in the Big 12, but the nation.
It was one of the worst offensive performances for Oklahoma under head coach Lincoln Riley since he was originally hired as the offensive coordinator in 2015. But many believe it had more to do with what the Mountaineers did right than what the Sooners did wrong.
Not many thought the defense would have a repeat performance from an excellent 2020 season, due to the personnel losses of All-Americans Darius Stills and Tykee Smith, as well as NFL draft pick Tony Fields at middle linebacker.
But through four games this year, the Mountaineers still have one of the best units in the conference.
“I think there’s a formula for us to be able to win big here,” Brown said. “We have to build around playing great defense. I think that fits us. Up to this point, I think we’ve established a standard that we are going to play defense on a high level. I think that’s important. I think there’s a formula for us to be able to win big here. I think that’s built around playing great defense.”
Brown, who made a name for himself as an offensive-minded coach, knows he has to establish a “efficient” offense to keep up with the defense, or else losses will continue like WVU suffered at OU.
With a high-powered Texas Tech offense coming to town this weekend for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium, the Mountaineers defense will be challenged — the Red Raiders are averaging 38.8 points and 461 yards per game.
Coincidentally, it was the last time Texas Tech visited Morgantown that saw a shift in the Mountaineers’ defense. The Red Raiders scored 35 points in the first half.
With the exception of three games since — last season’s Texas Tech and Iowa State games, and this year’s Maryland game — WVU has played at an elite level.
“We laid a big egg here in 2019 (against Texas Tech) and really played poorly,” Brown said. “After that, we went on the road at Kansas State, then here for Oklahoma State, then going on the road and beating TCU, and most of last year and up to this point this year, we’ve established a standard of how we want to play.”