A four-part series taking a look at the defense
A few years ago I did a four-part series where I went in-depth into the 2015 defense. It’s something I’ve wanted to get back and do every year but work, life, kids, family, and just time have all gotten in the way. So I made one of my resolutions this year to actually do this series and to make this something I try and do every year.
Entering the 2021 season, the Mountaineers were coming off a COVID-shortened season where the defense 2010 level good. The Mountaineers finished 2020 with the #21 ranked scoring defense and the #4 ranked total defense in the country. West Virginia would lose their All-American defensive tackle Darius Stills but returned a good portion of the defense that had improved and was a force to be reckoned with.
The defense was going to be led by the defensive line and that was true in 2020 and remained true in 2021. The defensive line was anchored by senior defensive tackle Dante Stills, who has played since his freshman season in 2018. Along with Stills, the defensive line featured “sophomore” Ahkeem Mesidor and redshirt junior Taijh Alston. The three of them made the lives of quarterbacks in the Big 12 a living hell and any defensive player will tell you, having an active defensive line makes your life easier.
West Virginia’s defensive philosophy was to be “multiple” and you saw that play out time and time again. At times they would bring down a linebacker to have a four-man front, at times they would have a three-man front. They would blitz from different people, dropping linemen into coverage and trying to disguise what they did.
Behind the three main stalwarts on the defensive line were middle linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo, who led the team in tackles and broke over 100 for the season. Beside Josh were Jared Bartlett and Exree Loe or Lance Dixon.
The secondary entered the season experienced and ended the season on the IR list with several players making emergency starts as players were hurt throughout the season. The main players on the defensive back side were Sean Mahone and Alonzo Addae in the deep backfield. Darly Porter Jr, Jackie Mathews and Charles Woods helped man the cornerbacks.
It should be noted that the defense was hit with a bunch of injuries. Exree Loe totaled 38 tackles in only 10 games. Lance Dixon totaled 36 tackles in only 10 games. Scottie Young had 33 in 11 games. Charles Woods didn’t start until midway through due to an injury to Nicktroy Fortune, who himself only appeared in 7 games.
Chandler-Semedo was a force, finishing with over 100 tackles but the drop off from Josh to the other linebackers was significant. It is pretty telling when a safety is second on the team in tackles. That is never a good sign.
Tidbits and Observations
- There are only 15 players in the table above and I could have listed another two or three but those players (VanDarius Cowan and Sean Martin) finished with fewer than 20 tackles and the rest of the players noted on the PDF have only a handful. A few years ago, this list would have included nearly 30 players. The lack of playing time is concerning.
- Those 15 players accounted for 9 interceptions and 25 sacks. Those numbers aren’t great, yet when you think about where this defense finished, its quite remarkable.
- The top 5 players (Chandler-Semedo, Mahone, Addae, Porter, Jr., Jackie Mathews) had 354 tackles combined. The remaining 10, 324 combined.
- Dante Stills is currently 7th all time on the WVU list for sacks with 19.0 in his career. He would need another 7 sacks to tie his dad Gary with 26 for his career.
The Big 12 has seen a shift in its persona. Three years ago, during the 2018 season, the Big 12 was thought of as the Wild, Wild West. High-flying offensive teams that didn’t care about defense. It would be a tough argument to defend, given that Oklahom and West Virginia both had offenses that averaged over 40 points a game. Fast forward three years and the script had changed, no longer are Big 12 teams throwing the ball all over the field, they are having to play ball control because defenses now rule the roost.
The 2020 team took a major step forward in terms of the defense and the 2021 squad looked to at least match that 2020 squad. The hopes entering the 2021 season where a defense that would be capable of controlling games and forcing opponents to pick their poison. If you couldn’t run the ball, were you going to be able to pass when you have three dominant defensive tackles bearing down on you? Would the secondary be aggressive and capable of manufacturing mistakes? Here is how the defense finished in both the Big 12 and Nationally
Take a moment to appreciate this table. West Virginia, by all accounts, fielded a top 40 defense this year. They weren’t flashy and if I have a complaint its that they just kinda did their job. They didn’t create anything but you didn’t get anything. Still, despite fielding a top 40 defense, they weren’t anywhere close to being the best defense in conference. It isn’t like they finished 2nd in categories, they are finishing fourth, fifth, third, seventh, third, fourth, ninth. They were damn good and still not good enough.
Tidbits and Observations
- That average points per game is quite misleading. Let’s round down to 23 points and if you do, eight teams hit the 23 point mark against the Mountaineers. Of those eight teams, five resulted in losses.
- The rush defense felt the pinch of personnel losses. Maryland broke 138 yards on the ground against the Mountaineers but no one else did until Baylor. Following the bye week, 5 of the remaining 7 teams on the schedule (TCU, ISU, K-State, Texas, Minnesota) broke the season average.
- At 35% 3rd down conversions, the Mountaineers finished 30th in the nation and third in conference. At 37%, Oklahoma finished 54th in the nation and 4th in conference.
- Four conference teams (Texas, Texas Tech, TCU and Kansas) finished 100th or lower in 3rd down conversion rate.
- The lack of turnovers really prevented this defense from being special.