By John Antonik for WVUsports.com
November 13, 2011 02:30 PM
|Eain Smith blocks this Tony Miliano field goal try on the final play of Saturday's game at Cincinnati. West Virginia defeated the Bearcats 24-21.
|All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
West Virginia’s defense is lot closer to being a pretty good unit than you might think.
Take Saturday’s performance at Cincinnati, for example. The Mountaineers were relatively successful defending most of the plays they faced against the Bearcats. In fact, if you remove four blown plays – Isaiah Pead’s 40-yard touchdown run when linebacker Jewone Snow missed a tackle near the line of scrimmage, Munchie Legaux’s 65-yard run when Eain Smith’s kamikaze hit on teammate Travis Bell sprung Legaux free, a blown coverage on Pead’s 45-yard reception and a misplay on Kendrell Thompkins’ 34-yard catch late in the game – you can subtract 174 yards off of Cincinnati’s yardage total.
But of course you can’t do that.
Playing well for extended periods of time before surrendering big plays has been a recurring theme for the defense all season long. In all but one game (Connecticut), the Mountaineer defense has given up at least one play of 25 yards or longer. Through 10 games, the defense has allowed 20 plays of 25 yards or longer, with seven of those coming in the last two games against Louisville and Cincinnati.
“Those are mistakes you make. We have to do a better job of that,” said defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. “Once the kids settle in and execute a little bit better then those big runs go away. The problem is at times it just rears its head throughout the game. They will play 10 plays pretty good and then the 11th one something bad happens. We’ve just got to continue to fight through that.”
Injuries and inconsistent play have forced Casteel to use different starting combinations up front, at linebacker and in the secondary. Linebacker seems to be the one area Casteel has spent the most time tweaking.
On Saturday against Cincinnati, Jewone Snow started in the middle with Goode and Rigg on the outside, but true freshman Jared Barber ended up getting the majority of the snaps alongside Goode and Rigg. Sophomore Tyler Anderson, junior college transfer Josh Francis, and senior Casey Vance have also seen action at linebacker this year.
Still, West Virginia is ranked 28th in the nation in total defense giving up 339.1 yards per game and 36th in pass defense allowing 203.2 yards per game this week. On Saturday, Casteel thought his guys kept battling and didn’t get discouraged when they did give up some big plays.
“We talked about that (Saturday morning), you know, these guys are going to make some plays, we’ve just got to survive and don’t let the last play affect the next one,” Casteel said. “Put it behind you and go play and the kids did that.” ***
West Virginia’s offense has put up yards against everyone it has faced this year. Syracuse, Rutgers, Louisville and Cincinnati have pretty good defenses and the Mountaineers managed to get at least 400 total yards on all of them.
Earlier this year, West Virginia produced 533 yards against No. 1-ranked LSU, which has one of the best defenses in the country.
When you really think about it, only the Mountaineers have stopped themselves.
West Virginia has committed 64 penalties in 10 games to rank 74th in the country in that category. However, of those 64 infractions, 41 have been flagged on the offense.
Holding penalties have been the single biggest drive killer, the Mountaineers being cited 16 times, including three yesterday at Cincinnati (the total is 19 if you add the three that were declined).
“This is game 10 and we continue to teach technique,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen of his team’s three holding calls. “That’s just part of the game and you have to be able to overcome that.”
West Virginia has also been flagged for 10 false starts (one per game), six delay of game penalties and three personal fouls. Other offensive infractions have included ineligible man downfield, illegal use of the hands, illegal formation, illegal touching and illegal block in the back.
If West Virginia can clean up some of those things up, the scoreboard will likely start lighting up.***
With three weeks left in the regular season, only USF and Syracuse are out of Big East title contention. Cincinnati is still in the driver’s seat with a 3-1 league record, but the Bearcats have two of their three remaining conference games on the road (at Rutgers and Syracuse) with a tough season-ending contest at home against UConn. Plus, the Bearcats may have to play all three of them with starting quarterback Zach Collaros watching from the sidelines.
Then there is a logjam of four teams in second place with 3-2 records – West Virginia, Rutgers, Louisville and Pitt.
The Mountaineers face Pitt in the Backyard Brawl in Morgantown on Friday, Nov. 25 before ending the regular season in Tampa against USF on Dec. 3.
Pitt has games remaining at West Virginia and against Syracuse at home; Rutgers has games left against Cincinnati and at Connecticut, and Louisville is on the road for its final two games against Connecticut and USF.
Connecticut, at 2-2 in Big East play, is also still in contention. The defending Big East champs have games left against Louisville and Rutgers at home before concluding the regular season at Cincinnati.
Last year, there was a three-way tie at the top of the Big East standings with Connecticut, West Virginia and Pitt each owning 5-2 records.
In 2004, Pitt claimed the Big East’s BCS berth when the league had four teams – Pitt, Boston College, West Virginia and Syracuse – all possessing 4-2 records.
The league could be looking at a similar conclusion to the regular season on Dec. 3, so it might be a good idea to brush up on all of those tiebreaker scenarios.***
West Virginia is back in the USA Today coaches’ poll at No. 23 after a week’s absence. The Mountaineers are two spots shy of the Top 25 in this week’s AP poll.
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