MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – For the second straight week, Tony Gibson‘s ‘Dawgs’ were barking.
Gibson calls his West Virginia University defensive players ‘Dawgs,’ an acronym that stands for Defense Always Wins Games, but it’s much more than just a moniker. It’s an attitude – a junkyard-dog attitude that he wants his players to have whenever they step onto the field.
Whenever Gibson hands out one of his camouflaged Dawg t-shirts, that person becomes part of an exclusive club.
A few weeks ago, Gibson wasn’t handing out too many t-shirts – and not many people wanted to be seen wearing them either. That’s because Gibson’s Dawgs were still pups, doing a lot more whimpering and yelping than barking.
Big 12 cellar dweller Kansas torched the Dawgs for 367 yards rushing, including an astonishing 291 on the ground by someone named Khalil Herbert.
The Dawgs got tricked into giving up some big plays in a 31-24 loss at TCU one week later.
Texas Tech hopped on its horse and ran up and down the field for two straight quarters against the Dawgs, scoring 28 points and generating 338 yards of offense before the offense finally bailed the team out in the second half.
The Dawgs allowed winless Baylor to score 30 second-half points, including 23 in the fourth quarter, nearly blowing a 25-point fourth quarter lead.
And then a week after that, one of the Big 12’s big dogs, Oklahoma State, put Gibson’s Dawgs back on the porch. In a 50-39 drubbing right in WVU’s own backyard, the Cowboys ran, passed and shot off their mouths with equal ease.
That was the low point of the season for Gibson’s young defense, statistically and psychologically.
After that game, West Virginia ranked last in the Big 12 in fourth-down defense and next-to-last in rushing defense and total defense. It also ranked eighth in first downs surrendered and sacks, and seventh in points allowed.
Coach Dana Holgorsen did something he has rarely done in seven years at West Virginia – he called out his team’s toughness and said things were about to get “uncomfortable around here.”
He mentioned everyone, but it was clearly obvious the two areas he was most concerned about were offensive line and the defense.
The practices leading up to the game against 14th-ranked Iowa State were much harder than usual, and the team responded with one of its best all-around performances of the season, particularly the defense.
“You hear all of the negative media out there, they called us ‘soft’ and not physical and stuff so we kind of took that to heart in practice,” senior safety Kyzir White said. “We were making sure we did everything full speed, and I think that helped us out during the games.”
Iowa State was limited to just one touchdown, 101 yards on the ground and 350 total yards in a hard-fought 20-16 Mountaineer victory.
The offense ground to a halt in the second half, putting the game on the defense’s shoulders. And it responded. Gibson’s crew was forced to defend 42 plays in the second half, including 20 on Iowa State’s last two possessions.
First-year players Hakeem Bailey and Kenny Robinson made pass breakups on four straight plays to give the football back to the offense and West Virginia ran out the clock and won the game.
Yesterday at Kansas State, Gibson’s defense was even better. When the offense was playing Russian roulette with the football in the first quarter, Gibson’s Dawgs were limiting the damage to field goals instead of touchdowns.
That kept the Mountaineers in the game until the offense finally got things going with a 28-point flurry during a 17-minute span to take a 28-20 halftime lead.
Then in the second half, Gibson’s Dawgs lived up to their moniker, and it won the game for West Virginia.
As it did a week before against Iowa State, the offense put up another goose egg on the scoreboard in the second half and the defense had to come through.
And it did.
Kansas State was limited to just 140 yards in the second half, those big runs Dalvin Warmack hit on them in the first half were taken away, and freshman quarterback Skylar Thompson was seeing double out there by the end of the game whenever he dropped back to pass.
He was sacked four times and picked off twice, critical mistakes that directly impacted the outcome of the game.
The first interception came near the end of the second quarter when emerging junior college defensive tackle Ezekiel Rose correctly diagnosed a screen pass to fullback Winston Dimel, fought off Dalton Risner’s block and intercepted Thompson’s pass at the K-State 30.
That set up Will Grier‘s miraculous, scrambling 30-yard touchdown pass to Ka’Raun White.
Although Thompson’s second pick didn’t lead to West Virginia points, it likely took points off the scoreboard for Kansas State. With less than eight minutes to play, the Wildcats were driving for the go-ahead score with the football at the WVU 19.
Here, Thompson dropped back and tried a pass down the seam to Byron Pringle that true freshman Robinson intercepted at the 10 and returned 37 yards to the WVU 48.
“When he caught that pick, we were actually going to switch positions and then we ended up not doing it and ended up catching it,” White said. “When we came over to the sideline I said, ‘You’re lucky we didn’t switch because that would have been four (interceptions) for me.’ He said he was going to get one.
“We knew what they were going to do,” White added. “We knew No. 2 (Isaiah Harris) was going to go vertical and they were going to try and hit the slant (to Pringle). I just told him, ‘Let’s switch.’ But it didn’t happen. (Robinson) had the running back on that play but he ended up blocking, so Kenny scraped to the field side and he made the play on the ball.”
Robinson’s instinctive play flipped the field, and after Billy Kinney‘s punt was downed at the K-State 3, the defense forced a three-and-out possession to allow the offense to run out the clock and win the game.
“It was a weird game,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “I am just excited about winning. I do not quite know how we won it other than our defense playing their tail off.”
They did. No call-outs from the head coach this week. We can see Gibson’s young defense growing up right before our eyes.
His Dawgs are no longer pups.
Three weeks ago, when Gibson decided to switch seats in the interview room to try and bring his players some better fortune, he said he still believed in his guys and it was simply a matter of trusting the process.
They had to get back out on the practice field, roll up their sleeves, work hard and continue to get better. Today we are seeing the fruits of their labor, not only on the field but also on the stat sheet.
Following Saturday’s game, the defense has jumped two spots in the conference rankings in total defense and one spot in scoring, sacks and first downs allowed.
The pass defense is now ranked second in the Big 12, allowing 245.3 yards per game, and even the run defense has shown marked improvement.
Three weeks ago, it was allowing 204.6 yards per game. This morning that number has shrunk to 191.1 yards per game.
“We have a chance to do something special with these next two games and finish the season strong,” White said confidently.
Indeed, it’s a defense that is not only barking, but now biting, too!
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