There was a lot of talk this offseason about West Virginia’s defense focusing on fundamentals and physicality.
The Mountaineers’ defense may be more fundamentally sound and may be more physical than a year ago, but they haven’t played much better through the first two games of 2023, especially in pass defense.
A poor performance in the season opener against Penn State was excusable. The Nittany Lions are a top-10 team in the nation with eyes on making the College Football Playoff.
A second disappointing outing, this time against FCS Duquesne, raises concerns to a whole new level.
“To say I’m frustrated with that would be an understatement,” WVU coach Neal Brown said Saturday night.
For the second week in a row, opposing wide receivers had very little trouble getting open against West Virginia’s secondary. Duquesne had six receptions over 15 yards, including the first score of the game in which Duquesne receiver DJ Powell simply ran past West Virginia’s defenders for a 38-yard touchdown.
“It’s concerning,” Brown said. “Some of it is a little bit of when it’s time to play, we’ve got to make plays. We had guys falling down in the first quarter. Just falling down.”
It is clear just from the box score that WVU’s secondary is severely lagging behind the front seven. The Dukes only ran for three yards on Saturday but were able to throw for 231.
These are the same problems the Mountaineers had a season ago when their defense finished second-to-last in the Big 12 in pass defense (262.3 yards per game) and allowed more than 300 passing yards five times. The Mountaineers were 1-4 in those games.
WVU’s attempt to fix its secondary came via the transfer portal, where the Mountaineers brought in corners Montre Miller (Kent State) and Beanie Bishop (Minnesota) and safeties Keyshawn Cobb (Buffalo) and Anthony Wilson (Georgia Southern).
“Our hope was we brought in some veterans and we were going to fix that and, quite frankly, we haven’t done that through two games,” Brown said. “We’ve got to go back to the drawing board. We’ve got to get those things corrected.”
Following the 5-7 2022 campaign, Brown did not make any staff changes on the defensive side of the ball, choosing to keep defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley, co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach ShaDon Brown and safeties coach Dontae Wright.
The decision was a show of loyalty from Brown but will continue to look questionable as long as the secondary’s struggles continue.
WVU plays its final nonconference game of the season next week hosting rival Pitt in the Backyard Brawl. The Panthers struggled mightily throwing the ball during their 27-21 loss to Cincinnati on Saturday. Pitt quarterback Phil Jurkovec completed just 10 of 32 passes for 179 yards.
After that, the Mountaineers being Big 12 play where an underperforming secondary could cause a lot of problems for the second year in a row.
“Our receiver play and improving in the secondary are going to be absolutely critical to the success we’ll have moving forward,” Brown said. “We’ve just got to play better.”