- Brandon Chatmon, ESPN Staff Writer
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They could be the Big 12's most underrated unit. Or it all could be just a mirage.
West Virginia will learn a lot about its defense when it takes on the explosive Baylor offense on Saturday night. Has the Mountaineers defense improved significantly? The numbers say yes.
WVU ranks second in first downs allowed per game (15.6), second in forced turnovers (11), third in red zone efficiency defense (40 percent) and third in yards allowed per game (345.4) in the Big 12 this season. WVU finished in the bottom half of the conference in all of those categories in 2012.
A combination of improved senior leadership and game experience has helped a Mountaineer defense which was littered with true and redshirt freshman a year ago.
"No disrespect to last year's team, but our senior leadership is phenomenal," defensive tackle Shaq Rowell said. "We have more people not afraid to say something, not afraid to be wrong and guys not afraid to make plays."
The improvement and maturity from the young players, who struggled at various times last season, has helped as well. Those players took their lumps in 2012, but it has helped them in 2013.
"We're not playing 10 true freshmen," coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Which is probably the biggest difference [between last year and this year]."
Teammates like Rowell can tell the difference in players like sophomore Karl Joseph, who led the squad with 104 tackles as a true freshman yet had his share of mistakes as well.
"It's day and night now," Rowell said. "Those guys are more confident in themselves, and they're learning you're not in high school anymore, you've got to grow up ASAP. They're understanding you can't be a freshman or sophomore anymore, you have to play like a senior. You have to prepare like an older guy. Nobody cares how old you are when you're making a play."
It all has led to the improved numbers from WVU's defense, and the Mountaineers have put up those defensive numbers as the lone Big 12 team that has played two conference games, allowing four combined touchdowns against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, two of the league's top offenses a year ago. Yet, even Holgorsen isn't ready to say his defense has arrived.
"We'll see how they do this week, playing against the best offense in college football in Baylor," he said.
After its performance last season, it's easy to see why anyone would have reservations about the solid start to the season for WVU's defense. But, even in WVU's 37-0 loss to Maryland, the Mountaineers defense performed well enough to win, as the Terps had one touchdown drive of more than 24 yards in their blowout win, while the Mountaineer offense stuttered.
It has given the Mountaineers the confidence to believe things have changed after they fielded arguably the Big 12's worst defense in 2012. Keith Patterson has taken over as the Mountaineers' lone defensive coordinator, installing his 3-4 system and simplifying things after sharing the co-defensive coordinator role with Joe DeForest a year ago.
"The No. 1 thing for us is believing in ourselves," Rowell said. "We're playing with a chip on our shoulder. We couldn't care less what people think. We know what the whole world thinks about us. That's the beauty of football -- the underdog can come out and win every game. This year nobody is expecting nothing from us."
Truer words were never spoken.
The nation fully expects Baylor's offense to run up and down the field on the Mountaineers, with images from Floyd Casey Stadium full of Lache Seastrunk touchdown gallops and Bryce Petty lasers to wide open Bears receivers destined to be on SportsCenter this weekend.
"I expect stuff like that to happen based off the way we played last year," defensive end Will Clarke said. "Nobody believes we're good yet. Nobody believes we've had that test yet."
It's a test the WVU is looking forward to.
"Definitely," Clarke said when asked if he wants the challenge of stopping BU. "They're the top guys, and everyone wants to play against the cream of the crop."