MORGANTOWN — Missed kicks, penalties, turnovers, muffed punts and an overall lack of execution on both sides produced a game that was borderline offensive in terms of its aesthetics on Saturday.
But for a West Virginia defensive unit that took offense to being gashed for over 200 yards rushing in last week’s 27-13 loss at Oklahoma State last week, it was poetry in motion.
The Mountaineers did everything but pitch a shutout in WVU’s 27-21 double-overtime win over visiting Baylor on Saturday. And with its back often to the wall, it put its foot to the floor.
Three times, Baylor started drives inside WVU territory due to a fumble, an interception and a fourth-quarter muffed punt. Two more Bears drives started on Baylor’s 44- and 46- yard lines. Out of those possessions, the Bears scored a grand total of seven points.
“Sudden change, which we practice a lot,” WVU coach Neal Brown said. “Offense turned the ball over and defense came out and immediately got off the field or made them kick field goals.”
The charge was led by the leaders of the unit as well, starting up front with Darius Stills, the Big 12 Conference preseason defensive player of the year. So far this year, the stats hadn’t quite been there for the Fairmont Senior product, but they certainly were on Saturday as he piled up 21/2 sacks and 31/2 tackles for loss. And those numbers don’t begin to tell the tale of how often Stills was in the Baylor backfield disrupting runs and sending Bears quarterback Charlie Brewer running for safety outside of the pocket.
“He was emotional after the game; he was spent,” Brown said. “When you invest that much, you’re going to be a little emotional, so I’m proud of him.”
“I just like to play ball,” Stills added. “I try to get better every day on my craft. I go in there with a game plan that the coaches put in. We trust it as D-line and as a team — just started making plays.”
It isn’t that Stills has been subpar this year, but with the preseason attention heaped upon him, he’s often been the focal point of opposing offensive schemes, resulting in double- and triple-teams. On Saturday against the Bears, Brown and co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Jordan Lesley helped alleviate that a bit by moving Stills around more than usual and giving him significant snaps at defensive end. Needless to say, the movement paid dividends.
“I usually play [defensive tackle or nose guard] and coach let me have a little freedom this week and I got a little love on the outside,” Stills said. “I took advantage of that opportunity and I’m glad it happened, because I actually got to have a little space for once.”
Stills wasn’t alone in his big day up front, with Akheem Mesidor and Jeffery Pooler combining for seven tackles and two more sacks.
And when the line wasn’t making the play, it was freeing up the second level to run wild and that’s exactly what Tony Fields, Josh Chandler-Semedo and Exree Loe in particular did. Fields filled up the defensive stat sheet with a team-best 10 tackles, with two for loss to go with a sack and a pass breakup. Chandler-Semedo made nine tackles with two for loss and Loe chipped in with six tackles.
But Fields in particular has been a difference-maker for the Mountaineers since arriving in Morgantown from Arizona late in the proceedings this fall. He broke into the starting lineup against Oklahoma State last week in just his second game and he’s more than solidified himself there even as he continues to settle into the Mountaineers’ schemes.
“I’m proud he’s on our team, I’ll tell you that,” Brown said. “He’s experienced, played in a lot of big games, he’s got a calmness about him — he’s always cognizant of how young we are and what kind of example he’s setting and I appreciate that.
“We need somebody when things are going bad, they can answer the call to adversity and somebody that can show our young football players how to respond to adversity. I told him, ‘We need you to come in and make plays but we also need somebody that we can point to and say this is how you react, this is how you prepare.’ And he’s done that for us.”
In all — including a secondary that came up with two crucial turnovers and limited Brewer to 229 yards and forced 15 incompletions — it was a total defensive effort that held the Bears to 27 rushing yards on 33 carries, 4 of 16 on third downs and absolutely made the plays the team needed. The plays that on this day, at least, the offense couldn’t make.
“The Big 12 is changing a little bit,” Brown said. “Last week was kind of a grind-it-out game that we found ways to lose, this week we found ways to win. It’s not always going to be like that. The offense is going to have to bail out the defense at some point. Today, it was the other way around.”