MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for MSNsportsNET.com. You can also read more about Mountaineer football at Jed’s new web site http://thesignalcaller.com.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - With the 103rd edition of the Backyard Brawl inching closer by the hour, a laundry list of things are preying on the minds of Mountaineer fans everywhere. After all, when the calendar turns to November and the days start counting down to Pitt week, it’s natural for West Virginians to become reflective. ron makes iron stronger and as such a team is often defined by who it chooses as its biggest rival. For that matter, it might be said that rivals aren’t ‘chosen’ at all. They simply happen by the natural order of things. You don’t set out to loathe something – a person, a place or a football team - it just works out that way.
As kickoff slowly approaches I find my thoughts drifting to memories of recent Backyard Brawls. My reflections are all of the positive nature because I long ago decided suppression is the best medicine when it comes to the not-so-positive ones, so please don’t mention the abominable “year we don’t speak of.” Hint – it begins with a ‘2’ and ends with a ‘7.’
At the risk of sounding as if I’m channeling my inner Jack Canfield, my focus here is instead on the games that have lifted the gold and blue spirit and stirred the collective soul in recent years. I remember Pat White on the bench mocking the Panther growl that echoed over the public address system at Heinz Field. I remember Dave Wannstedt simply saying “run faster” in response to an ESPN reporter’s question about what halftime adjustments he hoped to make against a WVU team that was blistering him at the intermission. I think of Rasheed Marshall throwing for 216 yards and Quincy Wilson adding 208 on the ground to help the Mountaineers bomb a 16th-ranked Pitt team 52-31 on a frigid November night in 2003. I recall West Virginia running wild for 451 rushing yards in a 45-13 demolition of the Panthers in 2005. I remember Pat White and Steve Slaton both cracking the 200-yard mark on the ground in 2006 at Heinz Field as WVU overcame a halftime deficit to cruise to a decisive 45-27 win.
Have you noticed a pattern emerge yet? If not, let me throw you a bone. The games listed above were all dominated by marquee performances by West Virginia’s offense. Does that mean the Mountaineers haven’t brought stout defensive play to the Brawl in recent years? Hardly. I recall in 2002 a classic goal line stand in the final minutes in Pittsburgh when WVU slammed the door on a No. 23 Pitt team by a final of 24-17. More recently, I recall last November when the Mountaineers defense stuffed a 9th-ranked Panthers team that came into the game averaging 34 points per outing. WVU held Pittsburgh out of the end zone on each of its first 11 possessions and ultimately Bill Stewart’s troops pulled out a timeless 19-16 win that was quickly labeled an instant classic.
Offense, says the old gridiron proverb, sells tickets – but defense wins championships. If that holds true then you have to like the Mountaineers chances in Pittsburgh and beyond with a defense that is starting to creep its way into the “best ever” discussion at West Virginia. Through 10 contests WVU hasn’t allowed more than 21 points in any single game. The last time a West Virginia team pulled that off so deep into a season was 1969 when Coach Jim Carlen’s squad finished the year at 10-1 with a 14-3 Peach Bowl win over South Carolina.
In 2010, the West Virginia defense has been nothing short of nasty. They play hard, they play smart and they play with velocity. The unit ranks among the best in the nation in every key statistical category including scoring (4th), total yards (4th), rushing (4th), passing (8th), 3rd down defense (1st) and sacks (5th).
The Mountaineers have playmakers at every level. Robert Sands, Brandon Hogan and Keith Tandy (6 INT) anchor a secondary that has held the opposition to a paltry 5.6 yards per pass attempt. J.T. Thomas and Anthony Leonard pace a linebacking corps that has emerged as one of the best in college football. The true strength of this defense, however, might be in the trenches where Chris Nield – one of the most underrated players in the game – has teamed up with Julian Miller and fellow senior Scooter Berry to wreak havoc on a weekly basis. Throwing juco sensation Bruce Irvin into the mix as a pass rushing specialist has almost been like cheating. Every time Irvin (the Big East’s co-leader in sacks with 10) steps onto the field he infuses a palpable energy into a unit that is already running at warp speed to the sound of the whistle.
All told, West Virginia has yielded a mere 12 touchdowns all season – the fewest in the nation. That feat is even more amazing when you consider that one of those scores WVU allowed came on a punt return by LSU and another came in the form of a Mountaineer fumble that was recovered in the end zone by Louisville.
In watching defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel’s unit not just this season but in recent years as well it’s reasonable to ask the following question: In a culture obsessed with type casting, has West Virginia completed the transformation from an offensive program into a defensive one?
At first blush when typical college football fans outside the borders of the state were asked what first came to mind when they heard the words West Virginia football
in recent years, many would point to standout players on the offensive side. Pat White, they might say, or Steve Slaton or Noel Devine.
That’s fair enough considering the countless records broken and headlines garnered by the Mountaineer offense over the course of the last decade, but West Virginia’s defense didn’t just emerge this year. It goes without saying that the Mountaineers at large enjoy one of the richest heritages of any team in the country on the defensive side of the football with alums like Sam Huff, Chuck Howley and Darryl Talley – to name just a few. Hard-nosed defense has always been a staple of West Virginia football, and it’s also been one of the key factors in helping WVU assert itself as the class of the new Big East. Since the reformation of the conference in 2005 the Mountaineers have won more games than any team in the league, and defense has played a vital role in that success.
Defensive coordinators across the land universally agree with one simple notion: You must consistently stop the run to have any chance at long-term success as a defense. As such, consider the following numbers posted by West Virginia defenses since the Big East assumed its current alignment in 2005.
WVU’s RANKING IN RUSH DEFENSE BY SEASON:
2005 – 19th nationally (No. 1 in Big East)
2006 – 13th nationally (No. 1 in Big East)
2007 – 18th nationally (No. 1 in Big East)
2008 – 41st nationally (No. 6 in Big East)
2009 – 37th nationally (No. 4 in Big East)
2010 – 4th nationally (No. 1 in Big East)
Now check out how that prosperity against the run has translated into success for the Mountaineer defense where it really matters – stopping the bad guys from scoring.
WVU’s RANKING IN SCORING DEFENSE BY SEASON:
2005 – 13th nationally (No. 1 in Big East)
2006 – 49th nationally (No. 5 in Big East)
2007 – 8th nationally (No. 1 in Big East)
2008 – 11th nationally (No. 1 in Big East)
2009 – 31st nationally (No. 4 in Big East)
2010 – 4th nationally (No. 1 in Big East)
For those scoring at home, here’s how West Virginia’s numbers stack up against the rest of the Big East Conference since the league was reshaped in 2005 into its current form.
BIG EAST COLLECTIVE RUSH DEFENSE RANKINGS SINCE 2005
#1) West Virginia – 111 Yards Per Game Allowed (74 Total Games)
#2) South Florida – 125 Yards Per Game Allowed (74 Total Games)
#3) Cincinnati – 128 Yards Per Game Allowed (74 Total Games)
#4) Rutgers – 129 Yards Per Game Allowed (74 Total Games)
#5) Louisville – 136 Yards Per Game Allowed (72 Total Games)
#6) Pittsburgh – 140 Yards Per Game Allowed (71 Total Games)
#7) Connecticut – 144 Yards Per Game Allowed (72 Total Games)
#8) Syracuse – 157 Yards Per Game Allowed (70 Total Games)
And here’s how the numbers for scoring defense stack up over the same time frame.
BIG EAST COLLECTIVE SCORING DEFENSE RANKINGS SINCE 2005
#1) West Virginia – 18.4 Points Per Game Allowed
#2) Rutgers – 20.4 Points Per Game Allowed
#3) South Florida – 20.7 Points Per Game Allowed
#4) Connecticut – 21.5 Points Per Game Allowed
#5) Pittsburgh – 21.6 Points Per Game Allowed
#6) Cincinnati – 22.9 Points Per Game Allowed
#7) Louisville – 24.4 Points Per Game Allowed
#8) Syracuse – 27.7 Points Per Game Allowed
The morale of the story? Sure it’s been a banner year for the Mountaineer defense, but 2010 hasn’t been Jeff Casteel’s first rodeo. In fact, Casteel was the strategist behind a West Virginia D that over the course of the last decade forced the 4th most turnovers in the entire country. Four times during that span (2002, 2003, 2005 & 2007) he helped WVU finish in the top 10 nationally in turnover margin. With veteran coaches at every turn on Casteel’s defensive staff, including two former major college D-coordinators (Steve Dunlap and David Lockwood), it’s no surprise the Mountaineers have built what has to be regarded as one of the most stifling units in the nation from top to bottom.
A few random points to ponder on this year’s Brawl:
- West Virginia’s Geno Smith has thrown just six interceptions this season. All six have come in the first half of play. Smith has yet to throw a single pick in the second half or OT (122 pass attempts). Four of Smith’s interceptions have come on third down – despite just 29% of his overall pass attempts coming on third down. One possible explanation: third down tends to be a heavier blitz down for many defenses and as a sophomore still mastering the complexities of the college game, some of those exotic looks might have gotten the better of Geno a time or two. It should also be noted that more of Geno’s TDs (8) have come on third down than any other down.
Like Smith, Pitt’s Tino Sunseri has been picked off just half a dozen times this year. The difference? Five of Sunseri’s six picks have been drive-killing interceptions thrown on the opponent’s side of the 50.
Panthers' wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin is an under-utilized talent in Pitt’s offense. Despite limited opportunities the 6’5” Baldwin has posted seven grabs of 40+ yards, ranking number three nationally in that category. trangely, all five of Baldwin’s touchdown grabs this year have come in the second half. A year ago at Mountaineer Field it was Baldwin’s 50-yard scoring grab with less than three minutes to play that tied the game at 16.
- Pittsburgh was flagged for pass interference five times last week at South Florida, including four on Antwuan Reed. The Mountaineers will have an opportunity to take advantage of this by targeting Reed downfield to expose the issues the junior cornerback obviously has with adjusting in space without incidental contact.
- The last three games in this series have been old school, slobber-knocking defensive battles (13-9, 19-15 and 19-16). In fact, Pitt has scored 30 or more points just once in its last 15 meetings with West Virginia. Expect more of the same this time around. On a shoddy surface and with points at a premium once again, pay close attention to the kicking game. WVU’s Tyler Bitancurt, the hero of last year’s game in Morgantown, has connected on 10-14 field goal attempts but is just 1-4 beyond 40 yards with a long of 42. Pitt’s Dan Hutchins is 15-21 but is only 1-5 beyond 40 with a long of 43. Run the numbers and then factor in the anticipated heavy winds and inclement weather (plus the traditionally difficult trappings of this venue for kickers in general) and suddenly it looks like both teams might need to breach the 20-yard line to have a dependable shot at a field goal.
In closing let me jump briefly back to the defense. As I see it, the only thing this unit might be lacking is a catchy nickname. A memorable moniker that will crop back up time and again as folks reflect on this defense for years to come. I’m throwing down the gauntlet, Mountaineer Nation. We’re eager to hear your suggestions. Some might favor a name like “The Casteel Curtain” while others could lean more toward something like “The Swat Rats.” As you can tell, I’m not very good at this! That’s why I’m asking you to stimulate the grey matter and get to work on a nickname that will stick. If any fan base can think far enough outside the box to conjure a name worthy of this 2010 defense’s accomplishments it’s the one right here in the Mountain State.
In the meantime, I’ll see you at the 50!