In just its fifth season as a member of the Big 12, West Virginia has a chance at the conference title.
The No. 16 Mountaineers have turned in several good seasons since leaving the Big East, playing in bowl games four of those five seasons. But this year, West Virginia is finding new success by doing something not many Big 12 teams do — it’s letting a solid defense carry the team.
“We used to be about high-powered offense, now it’s more of a balance,” said Noble Nwachukwu, a redshirt senior defensive lineman for the Mountaineers. “Defense is a big part of our game now, that’s the biggest difference.”
West Virginia boasts the top scoring defense in the conference — ranked No. 20 nationally — and the second-best total defense in the Big 12. And Nwachukwu is a big contributor to that success, for his attitude as well as his play.
“In all the scandal around college athletics… a guy like Noble is a reminder that you can win games and be successful with guys with character who do things the right way,” said Daron Roberts, who was Nwachukwu’s main recruiter and now works at the University of Texas as director of the Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation. “He has a lot of integrity, he’s a diligent worker and a special type of guy.”
Nwachukwu is a quiet leader who’s quick off the line and a good pass rusher. He has recorded 27 tackles this season and leads the Mountaineers with three sacks and six tackles for loss. He started all 13 games his sophomore and junior years, and last season totaled 47 tackles and a team-high 8.5 sacks.
But Nwachukwu didn’t pick up football until his junior year at Wylie High School. He found the sport too physical when he was younger and played basketball instead. Wylie head coach Bill Howard convinced Nwachukwu he would be more successful on the field than the hardwood and he instantly became a star, earning consecutive unanimous All-District 10-4A First Team honors.
Nwachukwu racked up offers from in-state schools, but his decision wasn’t just going to be about football. His parents were much more concerned with the education and culture at the schools interested in their son and played a big part in Nwachukwu’s decision.
“It was not your typical recruiting relationship,” Roberts said. “I spent as much time as the rules allowed with him. I can remember [his mother] asking a lot of good questions. It was not a football decision, it was an educational decision.”
Nwachukwu has developed into a key part of West Virginia’s defense since arriving in Morgantown in 2012. He was named to the preseason All-Big 12 team and is the only Mountaineer to win two defensive champion awards this season, which the coaches give to the player who earns the best grade after every game.
The personal honors show how hard Nwachukwu works during practices and games, but his only focus is on earning as much team success as possible — which includes a Big 12 championship.
“Definitely, I think we have a chance,” Nwachukwu said. “It’s in our hands. We just have to play hard and win out.”
The first obstacle in that plan is a matchup with Texas at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Nwachukwu said his family will be in attendance and he’s trying to round up enough tickets for all the people who want to watch him play his final collegiate game in Texas.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” Nwachukwu said. “It’s a crazy place to play. They’ve got a running back everyone’s talking about and we’re excited for the challenge. It’s going to be fun.”