MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Two of the better defenses in the country will butt heads Thursday night at Milan Puskar Stadium when 4-1 West Virginia takes on 3-2 South Florida in the Big East opener for the Mountaineers.
This week West Virginia is ranked seventh in total defense giving up 254.6 yards per game, ninth in rushing defense allowing 86.8 yards per game and 19th in pass defense permitting 167.8 yards per game. And on the other side of the field, South Florida is 12th this week in pass defense giving up 155 yards per game, 18th in total defense permitting 301.2 yards per game and 18th in pass efficiency defense with 107.3 rating.
The Bulls have a new defensive coordinator in former Marshall coach Mark Snyder, who knows the Mountaineers well. Schematically, USF is a little different from the Jim Leavitt days, Snyder preferring to bring more pressure from his safeties, corners and linebackers, but one thing has remained constant - South Florida once again has a pair of stud defensive ends in Craig Marshall and David Bedford. Both possess outstanding size, quickness and playmaking ability.
“They always seem to have someone else ready to go at those D-end positions,” said West Virginia tight end Tyler Urban.
Marshall personally destroyed Syracuse’s offense during USF’s 13-9 loss to Syracuse last Saturday, the senior producing eight tackles and three sacks against the Orange. He is now tied for second on the team in tackles with 22 and his four sacks are a team-best. Bedford shows 18 tackles, three tackles for losses and a sack. Both are junior college transfers.
South Florida also has a pair of 300 pounders up front in Terrell McClain and Cory Grissom. McClain has posted solid numbers for a down guy, accumulating 70 career tackles, 13 ½ tackles for losses and 5 ½ sacks.
Sophomore linebacker Sam Barrington leads the team with 30 tackles to go with two tackles for losses. Senior linebacker Jacquian Williams has also been productive with 22 tackles and a pair of TFLs.
“Week in and week out we don’t normally face the number of athletes South Florida puts out on the field,” Urban admitted. “Hopefully we can get over that this year and make sure everyone is accounted for when we’re blocking them.”
The Bulls secondary has recovered nicely from the losses of all-Big East performers Nate Allen and Jerome Murphy to graduation last year. The longest pass play the South Florida secondary has allowed so far is 31 yards against Stoney Brook in the opener. Bulls DBs have already combined for seven picks in five games.
“They are very, very salty,” said West Virginia coach Bill Stewart of the Bulls defense. “They run, they match up and they have big, fast guys.”
West Virginia’s defense has also been dominant at times this year. The Mountaineers are No. 1 in the country this week in the fewest first downs allowed with 61, No. 4 in third down efficiency at 25 percent and total three-and-outs forcing 5.4 per game.
An impressive 18 different players have had a hand in at least one negative yardage play and eight different players have been involved in sacks so far this season. Thirteen different players have double-digit tackle totals led by sophomore safety Terrence Garvin’s 32 stops. Middle linebacker Anthony Leonard has played well in senior Pat Lazear’s absence, producing 30 tackles, 3 ½ tackles for losses and a sack. Senior linebacker J.T. Thomas also possesses a nice stat line with 28 tackles, 2 ½ tackles for losses and three pass breakups.
Junior defensive end Bruce Irvin leads the Mountaineers with four sacks and four tackles for losses. Overall, the West Virginia defense has produced 45 negative yardage plays so far this year, and WVU will need a smarming effort on Thursday night to contain South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels, who torched the Mountaineers with arm and his legs in a 30-19 USF victory last year in Tampa.
Daniels threw touchdown passes and accounted for plays of 69, 49, 45, 25 and 23 yards against the Mountaineers last year. He passed for 232 yards and added 104 more on the ground.
“I hope we do not have the same plan for him as we did last year because he ran for more than 100 yards, threw for more than 230 yards and had three touchdowns,” said Stewart. “Whatever we did last year, we better not repeat this year.”
In 20 career games, Daniels has accounted for 27 passes of more than 25 yards and eight runs of 25 yards or longer. He has had six pass plays covering 25 yards or longer this year, including a 59-yarder to Dontavia Bogan against Stoney Brook in the opener.
Daniels is completing 52.6 percent of his pass attempts for 684 yards and four touchdowns in new coach Skip Holtz’s offensive system. The quarterback has also rushed 52 times for 186 yards and two scores. Against Syracuse, Daniels completed just 9 of 23 passes for 124 yards with two picks, and he threw four interceptions in USF’s 38-14 loss to Florida on Sept. 11.
“You have to play your assignments,” said Bruce Irvin of defending Daniels. “When you are supposed to stay outside, you have to stay outside. With a guy like B.J. Daniels, one mistake and he can make you pay for it.”
Moise Plancher (289 yards) and Demetrius Murray (262 yards) are USF’s two top rushers, while Bogan is the top receiver with 13 catches for 231 yards and two scores.
“They are building an offense that is going to be fun for the USF Bulls fans for years to come,” said Stewart. “I just hope it isn’t fun for them on Thursday.”
USF also has the top kick returner in the Big East in 5-foot-8, 164-pound sophomore Lindsey Lamar, who took a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown during last week’s game against Syracuse and is averaging 33 yards per return.
West Virginia, meanwhile, is coming off of its best offensive performance in more than two years, the Mountaineers putting 49 points on the scoreboard against UNLV last Saturday afternoon in Morgantown.
Sophomore quarterback Geno Smith completed 12 of 16 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns – the fourth time in five games this season Smith has thrown at least two TD passes. Smith is completing 66.4 percent of his pass attempts for 1,139 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Four different receivers show double-digit totals in catches, led by sophomore Tavon Austin’s 27 grabs for 366 yards and two touchdowns. Jock Sanders is one catch behind Austin for 286 yards and two scores. The passing game also received a big boost last Saturday from junior Brad Starks, who posted career highs in touchdown catches (three) and yards (100). Starks has been slowed by a groin injury and had not caught a pass entering last Saturday’s game.
Noel Devine only got three carries against the Rebels, but two of them went for touchdowns, finishing the afternoon with 84 yards and an average of 28 yards per carry. Devine had been slowed by a bruised foot sustained in West Virginia’s 20-14 loss at LSU on Sept. 25.
For the season, the senior shows 475 yards and four touchdowns and an average of 5.3 yards per carry. However, Devine has not had great success in the past running against South Florida’s defense, averaging just 56 yards in three career games against the Bulls with no rushing touchdowns. His longest run from scrimmage the last two years was just 14 yards in 2008.
“Sometimes you need to talk to your players and tell them just to play the game,” said Stewart. “They don’t have to put capes on and fly around like Batman and Robin. We need to go play Mountaineer football, and if we do that, our young men can perform well.”
South Florida has won three of the last four meetings against West Virginia, including a 24-19 victory in Morgantown in 2006 that knocked the Mountaineers out of contention for the Big East title.
“Everything is about matchups and when people say, ‘Well, this team beat that team so that means this team is going to beat that team’, well, that’s not the way things work because different teams matchup differently,” said running backs coach Chris Beatty. “They have different strengths and they match up pretty well against us. Their speed and some of the things they do have given us problems in the past.”
West Virginia’s 13-7 win in 2008 in Morgantown required a defensive stand on the final play of the game with the Bulls at the WVU 12 yard line.
“We have not done well against them in the past,” said Stewart. “In 2006 we scored 19 points, in 2007 we scored 13 points and both of those were losses. Then in 2008, they came in here for Pat White’s ‘White Out’ and we won 13-7. Last year, we went down there ranked and scored 19 points and lost. We were lucky to win one game.”
ESPN will televise the game nationally. Kickoff is set for 7:45 p.m.
According to the Mountaineer Ticket Office, there are still tickets remaining for the game and they can be purchased by calling the Mountaineer Ticket Office toll-free at 1-800-WVU GAME or by logging on to WVUGAME.com.