West Virginia defense looks past shaky start


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David Long breaks up a pass on Saturday vs. TCU. — PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID PENNOCK

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When TCU went 65 yards on eight plays in just 5 minutes in its opening drive against West Virginia on Saturday, it would have been easy to mutter, “Here we go again,” defensive end Reese Donahue said. But the Mountaineers’ defense collected itself and held TCU’s offense to just a field goal on that drive and then hunkered down and went to work.

After booting the field goal through with 8:10 left in the first quarter, TCU didn’t score again until Jalen Reagor broke free for a 28-yard score with 9:48 left in the third quarter. Those 10 points were all the Horned Frogs could muster against West Virginia in a 47-10 victory for the Mountaineers.

Coming off a game in which it seemed few West Virginia defenders could bring down Texas ballcarriers, both Donahue and David Long said they knew the defense needed to put forth a better effort against TCU.

But after watching its own offense struggle and then letting TCU march right down the field, panic easily could have set in early. Donahue said that wasn’t the case.

“No panic, whatsoever. That’s football. Things happen, people make plays,” Donahue said. “We knew the offense was going to pick it up. They could have said the same thing about us after watching us getting drug down the field and giving up a field goal. They could have been like, ‘Oh, man. Are they going to stop anybody today?’ But it’s just believing in each other and playing off each other.”

The defense played its part first. After that field goal from the Horned Frogs, West Virginia’s defense went on a tear, forcing six punts and a recording a safety before TCU scored again. Special teams also forced a fumble on a kickoff to add some momentum there.

Ssomewhere along the way, West Virginia’s defense began to shut down the TCU rushing offense, holding the Horned Frogs to a total of minus-7 yards on the ground on the strength of eight tackles for loss, including four sacks.

“You know what, I play. I don’t keep track of stats and stuff,” Donahue said when a reporter asked him if the defense was cognizant of the rushing total. “It’s one of those things where you play the play, and when it’s over, it’s over. It doesn't matter if its third down or first down. For us, it’s a stop. We play big into down and distance, but the key is to stop them.”

Even if Donahue doesn’t pay attention to stats, here’s one for you: It was the first time West Virginia had held an opponent to negative rushing yardage since Sept. 18, 2010, when the defense held Maryland to minus-10 yards on the ground.

It was the best for a Tony Gibson-led defense, though, topping the mark he set against Kansas State in 2014 (1 rushing yard).

It took a drive or two before Gibson was comfortable enough to leave his secondary on an island with TCU receivers, but once he started to bring pressure against quarterback Mike Collins, TCU couldn’t provide much of an answer.

And once West Virginia went up two scores, the game plan changed, Gibson said.

“Getting after him,” Gibson said of what the new strategy became. “He was seeing too much, and that’s what happened on the safety. He panicked and saw too much and didn’t even try to throw it.”

That was something he hadn’t seen on tape from Collins. But he also hadn’t seen another thing there, either.

“He hasn’t had guys pressure him like we did,” Gibson said.

It seems sometimes that it takes getting punched in the mouth for West Virginia’s defense to play up to its own standards. Two weeks ago, Texas dropped 41 points and posted 520 yards against this same defense. If nothing else, at least Donahue admitted that it did present a wake-up call.

“Absolutely. Offense kept us in the game (against Texas) — 100 percent honest. We told them that; it’s a given,” he said. “Coach Gibby told us, ‘Let’s be us. Let’s show everybody who we actually are. We’ve been inconsistent. This is who we want to be, and if you want to be that person or that team, you've got to be consistent.’ This was our opportunity to show everybody that.”

Long, whose four TFLs put him at 17.5 for the season, agreed.

“As a defense, we know what we can do and what we’re capable of. When we go out and show it, it feels a lot better than going out and getting 41 put on us. We just need to go out there every week with the same mentality just to play ball.”

And it was a complete game, too. From start to finish, guys made plays and didn’t make dumb mistakes that cost points. Guys were smiling. Guys were celebrating. Guys were into it from start to finish.

“When we play with a little swag out there, man, it’s a different level of football we play,” Long said. “Having the lead, people get comfortable. So we’ve got to keep ourselves hyped up and enjoy each other while we’re making plays.”


• Long's 17.5 tackles for loss topped his previous season-best total and is the fourth-best single-season mark in school history.

• West Virginia is now 23-0 when Gibson's defense holds opponents to under 20 points.

• Redshirt senior safety Dravon Askew-Henry made his team-leading 48th career start on Saturday. That's the second-most in school history.

Exree Loe recovered two fumbles Saturday. It’s the first time a Mountaineer has recovered multiple fumbles in one game since Darrell Whitmore on Nov. 5, 1988, at Cincinnati.

• West Virginia has won 21 consecutive games when leading at halftime. The Mountaineers are 48-6 under Dana Holgorsen when holding a lead at the half.

• Holgorsen earned his 61st career victory, passing Rich Rodriguez (2001-07) for No. 2 on WVU’s career wins list.

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