At one time, the OU-West Virginia tilt seemed like it could ultimately be a de facto Big 12 championship and battle of Heisman Trophy contending quarterbacks. The Mountaineers started the season 5-0, but are now in the midst of a four-game losing streak, during which opposing teams have scored an average of 49.5 points.
Earlier this week, I spoke by telephone with West Virginia radio analyst Dwight Wallace, a former Mountaineers assistant coach who has been part of the broadcast team since 1999.
Here is a Q&A with Wallace, who said he thinks West Virginia is making small strides on defense.
What made West Virginia’s defense so dominant against Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl?
“(West Virginia coaches) ran a different system then. They called it an odd stack, or a 3-3-5 stack.
“I think it was a little bit unique; not too many people were running it, and I don’t think Oklahoma had seen it very much. Oklahoma was so physical, big and strong, and I think when we got in that game, they were surprised with our speed. The one thing that defense did, it allowed you to bring pressure from all over the place. One guy’s blitzing, then the next play he’s dropping back and someone else is blitzing.
“It caught Oklahoma a little by surprise. They had good speed on that defense. When those kids were blitzing, they were really blitzing. Oklahoma got called for several holding penalties. That was one of the key stats.”
Did you think the West Virginia defense would struggle this much this season?
“I anticipated some struggle. I think you compound that by going into a new conference that is really strong offensively. We stepped up in the type of skill and speed we were seeing in the Big 12.”
“We knew we had lost some good talent. We knew we were young and did not have a lot of leadership, and the second thing was depth. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from being part of the Big 12, it’s that if you’re gonna be running 80 or 90 plays a game, you really need some depth.
“So you combine a lack of experience, a lack of numbers, transitioning the defense, stepping into a new conference with a real strong emphasis on offense … you put all that into one basket, and it’s tough to overcome.”
What do you think still needs to change defensively for West Virginia?
“I think we’re still struggling for some leadership over there. We’ve got a bunch of young guys. Some guys have shown signs that they’ll be good, but as a group, we’ll have so see. Coaches are trying to strengthen the recruiting on the defensive side.”
How much would beating Oklahoma help this team mentally going forward?
“The last two weeks, I think we’ve seen some improvement in our defense. We were really disappointed in special teams last week (at Oklahoma State). We got some bad bounces, but we also saw the resurgence of our offense … it started to come back last week. Started to look like the old offense at times.
“But yes, victories over Oklahoma, Iowa State and Kansas to end the season would be a good feather in your cap.”
Do you think that dominant Fiesta Bowl win over the Sooners set the program’s bar for success at a level that was maybe unreasonably high for Bill Stewart’s tenure as head coach?
“They didn’t play their best game and we did. … I do think that happened, but Bill was solid. He really had a mixture of staffs, too, coaching that Fiesta Bowl. Some of the guys that were moving on with coach Rodriguez to Michigan were still on the staff. He did bring in new coaches after that game. There was a transition state after that game, too.
“But I don’t think there’s any question that the Oklahoma game set a high standard.”