Big 12 Conference...

Big 12 Conference

MORGANTOWN — 70-63.

That was West Virginia’s introduction to Big 12 football almost a decade ago.

West Virginia had the 70, Baylor the 63 in the first Big 12 game the Mountaineers ever played.

And it wasn’t an aberration in the Big 12, a conference where some teams would wind up with more touchdowns scored than tackles made.

The only D in the Big 12 was Dallas, but times are changing.

Just as the gunslingers in the Old West eventually went out of favor, so, too, have the gunslingers who used to stand behind center in Big 12 games and fling the ball all over the lot.

Today, you look around the Big 12 and you see West Virginia, the No. 1 team against the pass in the nation last year. You see Iowa State. You see Gary Patterson, who may not spell TCU with a D but who always seems to have one on the field when the Horned Frogs play.

And now, as hard as it is to believe, Oklahoma has made the most important discovery in the state since oil was accidentally discovered near Salina in 1859.

The Sooners now play defense with the addition of Alex Grinch a few seasons back.

“Well, the expectations were very high to begin with,” head coach Lincoln Riley says of the hiring of Grinch from Washington State. “I mean, Oklahoma is a place when we began the search for a new defensive coordinator, it’s a place you feel like you can go out and have a chance to hire just about anybody in the country; one of the advantages of being able to work at a program like this.

“Alex (Grinch) quickly separated himself for us during that process because of what we believed that this could be, and our visions were so much in line that it was almost scary for not really knowing each other that well prior to. The progression has been great. We were much improved in year one, we took a big step in year two, and our plan is to take another big step here,” Riley went on.

“A lot of things go into that. Players now have been in that system for a couple of years, some really strong leaders. I think because of our success as a team, and especially our success defensively over the last few years, we’ve been able to recruit at a higher and higher level, especially on the defensive side of the ball. And we look different just even walking into a team meeting room on that side of the ball than we did a few years ago. It just looks different in a positive way.”

And if Oklahoma can play defense, everyone in the conference can play defense.

Neal Brown knows his team can because he saw it last year ... and while there were heavy losses, there is a whole lot coming back.

“I thought we had one of the best defensive units in the Big 12 Conference and nationally last year, and our statistics back that up,” Brown said during his press conference. “Really, that’s going to be the unit with the most experience. That’s going to be the unit that will lead us again.”

Interestingly, another team that is now into defense is that Baylor team that scored 63 on WVU in that Big 12 debut. At that time Art Briles was the head coach and he had players spread everywhere on the field and simply dared you to cover him one-on-one. It led to a lot of points but there was no defense.

Now Dave Aranda runs the Bears and he is a defensive oriented coach, looking for that to lead them back into Big 12 contention.

“Defensively, we’re really working hard on doing simple better,” he said of the emphasis he has building a defense. “I feel like if you really focus on the simple, the simple can be sophisticated. And you can really take ownership and take base things to new heights. So, excited to see where that lands.”

And what has happened in the league is that people are actually noticing defensive players rather than all the quarterbacks and receivers who were performing miracles every Saturday.

West Virginia had Darius Stills a year ago as the best defensive lineman in the league and this year it’s his brother, Dante, who is about to move forward and maybe replace him as the best in the league.

“I think it starts up front on our defensive line,” Brown said of building his defense. “Talked about Dante (Stills) who was one of our most improved players in the spring, and also Akheem Mesidor, who was Freshman All-American last year, we moved him inside [to replace Darius]. I think he’s got really an opportunity to be a special player in our league.”

At Baylor, Aranda has a special player of his own in Terrel Bernard, who is back after a season-ending injury last year.

“He’s got a great heart,” Aranda said. “His care for others, there’s a selflessness about him that our team sees and recognizes. And he pushes people to be better by the way that he goes about his day. I’m thankful for Terrel coming back. It was a choice that he made. And we’re all better for it. I’m a better coach because of it.”

In the end, though, you go back to the horror of Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley coaching an offense backed bya world class defense.

It wasn’t something that just happened, either. It was planned.

“Defensively, I don’t know there was the eureka, Hollywood moment,” Riley said. “I think you felt just kind of constant improvement from Day 1 and we’ve made some, big, big plays in big games, especially to close out games over the last few years. I think those, in particular, did something for the psyche and confidence of an individual player or side of the ball that is hard to duplicate.

“But I think it’s just been a real consistent process, and I would really point to the defensive line, really becoming a strength of this team and really one of the best defensive lines in college football, that really stands out to me.

“As far as recruiting, we have changed in some ways what we look for. I would say probably the defensive front and the secondary the most, we really put a premium on trying to get bigger in the secondary, and I think that’s improved.

“There was a several-year stretch there where we were pretty small across the board. Not that you can’t have a small guy here and there, but you don’t want to roll out with four 5-8 guys out in the secondary. So, we certainly look a lot different there.

“And then with the front with us being so attacking, single gap, so much movement, the premium has been on obviously big guys but the athleticism there, and even if it’s a big monster, a plugger, two-gap guy, we are not really recruiting that body type anymore. We want guys that can win one-on-ones, that can penetrate, that can get in the backfield and cause havoc. So those have been the two biggest changes from a defensive recruiting philosophy.”

 —  Bob Hertzel covers WVU athletics for the Times West Virginian

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