In need of more takeaways, West Virginia defense looking to capitalize when opportunities come about

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Adding to West Virginia’s defensive struggles through the first five games of the 2022 season is the Mountaineers’ inability to force turnovers.

Ahead of Thursday’s 7 p.m. home game against Baylor that’ll take West Virginia to the midway point of its regular season, the Mountaineers have come up with only three takeaways — tied for No. 126 nationally and ahead of only two of 131 FBS teams.

WVU has fumble recoveries by linebackers Lee Kpogba against Pitt and Caden Biser against Towson, along with an interception returned for a touchdown by true freshman cornerback Jacolby Spells at Virginia Tech.

With the lone interception, the Mountaineers are in a nine-way tie for last among all FBS teams.

“You have to keep putting it as a focal point of your message throughout the week. It always has been and it’s always going to continue to be whether you’re forcing four or five a game or none. You have to continue to stress it,” defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley said. “The other part is we have to make plays on a ball in the air. We’ve had so many opportunities.”

An obvious example of that came in West Virginia’s most recent outing when the Mountaineers fell at Texas, 38-20. The Longhorns scored their fifth and final touchdown on the opening series of the second half courtesy of a 44-yard pass from Hudson Card to Xavier Worthy. 

Before Worthy brought the pass in, West Virginia safety Aubrey Burks elevated and got both hands on the football, only to deflect it toward the explosive Texas wideout.

“You take the one last Saturday — catch the ball and there you go,” Lesley said. “We have to make those when those opportunities present themselves against good opponents. You can’t let them go. It’s simple things.”

The next challenge comes Thursday when the Mountaineers look for their first solid defensive showing in Big 12 play this season against the Bears. West Virginia has surrendered 93 points without forcing a turnover in two league losses thus far.

Baylor, like the Mountaineers, has turned it over five times this season, which is good for a No. 18 ranking nationally. Quarterback Blake Shapen has three interceptions on 140 passes and the Bears have lost fumbles twice.

Two of Shapen’s interceptions came in the Bears’ most recent contest, a 36-25 loss to Oklahoma State on October 1.

“It starts at practice. Our practice habits have to be better,” said WVU fifth-year senior Jasir Cox, who’s split time at spear and will linebacker. “When the ball is in the air, we have to want the ball. We have to understand that the ball isn’t thrown at us. It’s our job to take it away. We have to create turnovers all around, whether it’s through sacks, getting fumbles or interceptions. Our urgency needs to be a little bit better in that area.”

Interceptions won’t come easily and chances may not be prevalent against the Bears, who have rushed on 202 of 351 offensive plays. 

Despite West Virginia’s struggles against the pass, the Bears often plan to establish the run first, which in turn, opens up more favorable opportunities through the air.

“We need to look at everything this week, whether it’s in the pass game or quarterback run,” Cox said. “His versatility really opens up the game for them. It makes our job a little bit more difficult, but as long as we do our keys, I feel we’ll come out on top.”

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