Country Foes Burnin': The West Virginia Defense

LOUISVILLE KY - NOVEMBER 20: Justin Burke #13 of the Louisville Cardinals is sacked by Bruce Irvin #11 of the West Virginia Mountaineers during the game at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on November 20 2010 in Louisville Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

What's the difference between the Fiesta Bowl and the Champs Sports Bowl?  In West Virginia's 16-13 overtime loss to UConn, the Mountaineers outgained the Huskies 5.1 to 4.0 per play, 414 to 278 overall, but turned the ball over five times.  Four occurred in UConn territory, two inside the 30, one inside the 5.  The Huskies needed every one of those mistakes to prevail and ultimately earn the Big East's BCS bid by virtue of a tiebreaker.

It's an unfortunate result for the Big East, because West Virginia is the class of the league and therefore the best bet to have a good showing in Tempe.  They are the league's best in large part because their defense has been fantastic all season--one of the five or ten best in the country.

WVU Def Nat'l Rank
Rushing 2
Passing 11
Pass Eff 11
Total D 3
Scoring 2
Sacks 3
TFLs 21
Yds/Play 3
Yds/Rush 3
Yds/Pass 6
S&P+ 5

Those last two metrics, which come from Football Outsiders, are adjusted for schedule strength.  The Mountaineers did not allow more than 21 points in a game this season, and only two opponents managed to crack 20.  Though there was a surprising hiccup against Marshall that saw the Herd average 6.5 yards per snap, they were otherwise stingy week in and week out.  When they lost, they lost because their offense faltered.  Ten of 12 opponents were held under five yards per play, eight under 4.5, five under 4.0. 

Football Outsiders offers a few more in-depth perspectives.  They track the following:

-- First down rate, the percentage of opponent offensive drives that result in at least one first down or touchdown. 
-- Explosive Drives, the percentage of each opponent offense's drives that average at least 10 yards per play.
-- Methodical Drives, the percentage of each opponent offense's drives that run 10 or more plays.

In those categories, WVU ranks 7th, 4th, and 8th, respectively.  Sustained drives and big plays are rare against this defense.

As you might guess, their first team is loaded with experience: ten upperclassmen. [Edit: I should point out that one of those upperclassmen, CB Brandon Hogan, will miss the game with a knee injury.]   The starters have a combined 266 games' worth of starting experience--an average of more than 24 starts per player.  They shut Maryland's offense down en route to a 31-17 win, handled Cincinnati 37-10, and lost a close one to LSU in Death Valley, during which they limited a decent Tigers offense to 3.9 yards per play.

Their defense is at least on par with Clemson's, and probably a bit better.  Both of Football Outsiders' metrics rate the Mountaineers slightly ahead.  In raw terms, it's not all that close.  So this very well could be the biggest challenge NC State's offense has faced all season.

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