WVU defense improves, set for Terrapins to test
MORGANTOWN -- West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen isn't sold yet on his improved defense.
Holgorsen said the unit that was plain terrible last year but has been holding opponents to 13 points a game will get its stiffest challenge yet on Saturday against unbeaten Maryland in Baltimore.
"We haven't seen the throwing threat that we're going to see this week," Holgorsen said. "They've got big play potential. This will be a different challenge for us. I'm excited to see how our guys react to it."
C.J. Brown threw for 277 yards, ran for 122 more and accounted for two touchdowns last week to lead Maryland (3-0) to a 32-21 win over Connecticut.
West Virginia's pass defense ranks eighth in the nation, allowing 137 yards per game. The Mountaineers (2-1) have given up two touchdown passes so far after allowing 38 a year ago.
But the first three opponents were William & Mary of the Football Championship Subdivision, first-year FBS member Georgia State and an Oklahoma team that managed just 119 yards passing against West Virginia.
The next three weeks will tell a lot.
After Maryland, the Mountaineers face rested No. 11 Oklahoma State at home next week, followed by an Oct. 5 game at No. 20 Baylor.
Maryland averages 292 yards passing and about 41 points per game.
"Do we feel better about where we are defensively? Yes, absolutely," Holgorsen said. "Do we have it all figured out? No. Maryland is going to bring some bigger challenges, they have the ability. Oklahoma State and Baylor, our next two opponents, are also going to have a lot of ability. So this will be the game where we see where we are at."
West Virginia's secondary was its biggest liability a year ago, when the defense allowed 312 yards per game. In the offseason the Mountaineers got a new defensive coordinator, two new secondary coaches and two new starting cornerbacks.
After Brodrick Jenkins' sudden departure from the team this week, neither starting cornerback for most of last season is at West Virginia anymore. Juniors Travis Bell and Ishmael Banks won the starting jobs out of fall camp. They've joined veteran safeties Karl Joseph and Darwin Cook in the secondary.
"We get to show the world how much we really have changed," Banks said. "We're on a whole 'nother level. We feel like we can be the best. Our goal is to be the best defense in the Big 12, so you have to have a good secondary. We're looking to show our true colors out there."
West Virginia already has forced six turnovers -- including four at Oklahoma -- after getting 13 all of last year.
So far the secondary has cut down dramatically on big plays allowed, with six pass plays of 20 yards or more. In the Baylor game alone last year, the Mountaineers allowed 10 such plays.
Besides Banks and Bell, freshman Daryl Worley has emerged as a starting nickel back.
"He's the next guy in, yes, and he looks good," Holgorsen said. "He brings energy and does some things out there athletically that I don't see happening very often. He's got loads of potential. He will be a tremendous corner for us."
West Virginia's run defense still needs some work, allowing an average of 185 yards on the ground, including 316 yards against Oklahoma.
And the dual-threat Brown will certainly put some pressure on West Virginia's ability to defend both the run and pass.
"They've got a good quarterback," Banks said. "He's mobile and can throw it so we have to focus on our technique even more. We've just got to be disciplined, lock on and be ready for anything they throw at us."