NORMAN — For all the hype surrounding West Virginia's inaugural Big 12 season — the prolific Dana Holgorsen offense, Geno Smith's Heisman candidacy, etc. — there were always questions about the Mountaineers' defense.
Even some close to the program had concerns about the defense's capability to slow the unfamiliar, high-powered offenses it would face in its new conference.
“I anticipated some struggle,” said Dwight Wallace, a former West Virginia assistant coach, now in his 13th season as the Mountaineer Sports Network football radio analyst.
“We knew we were young and didn't have a lot of leadership, and the second thing was depth. ... I think you compound that by going into a new conference that is really strong offensively.”
West Virginia started out 5-0 before beginning its stunning collapse; the Mountaineers enter Saturday's home game against No. 12 Oklahoma on a four-game losing streak, surrendering over 40 points a game and ranking dead last nationally in pass defense.
That unit is a far, far cry from the last West Virginia defense Oklahoma faced.
In the 2008 Fiesta Bowl — while quarterback Pat White led his offense to five touchdowns in its final eight possessions — the Mountaineer defense held Oklahoma touchdown-less until midway through the third quarter of the 48-28 rout.
West Virginia entered that game ranked sixth nationally in total defense and sacked OU quarterback Sam Bradford three times.
“They had good speed on that defense,” Wallace said. “It caught Oklahoma a little by surprise. When those kids were blitzing, they were really blitzing. Oklahoma got called for several holding penalties; that was one of the key stats in that game.”
So what has happened to the West Virginia defense? It's a mixed bag of problems that includes coaching changes, stronger — and foreign — competition and little experience and leadership, Wallace said.
Former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez bolted for Michigan just before the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, when Bill Stewart took over and coached until resigning amid controversy just before last season, when Holgorsen took over.
Though all those changes, Jeff Casteel stayed on as defensive coordinator. He left to join Rodriguez's Arizona staff last January, when former Oklahoma State assistant Joe DeForest took the defensive reins and made schematic changes.
“Some young guys have shown signs they'll be good, but as a group, we'll have to see,” Wallace said. “Coaches are trying to strengthen the recruiting on the defensive side.”
The Mountaineers also lack the depth needed to keep up with Big 12 offenses, many of which strive for upward of 80 snaps a game.
“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,” Wallace said.
OU co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said, “Week after week, you're gonna have to play against some very potent passing attacks ... We've got a good defense, and it's been difficult for our guys at times.”