And a perfect measuring tool for just how far they’ve come is awaiting them when they face NC State - one of the nation’s top ranked defenses.
“This is a very, very good NC State defense,” offered WVU offensive line coach Dave Johnson of the Mountaineers’ Champs Sports Bowl opponent. “We are going to have to play almost perfect to have a chance. It’s a big game and it’s going to be a challenge for us.”
Similar to West Virginia’s defense, the Wolfpack are built toward stopping the run and getting constant pressure on the quarterback. NC State ranks fourth nationally in sacks (3.25) and tackles for loss (7.83) per game, and is No. 12 against the run, yielding only 113 yards per game.
In fact, the vast majority of the rushing yards NC State has given up this year came in just two games against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech – the two teams producing a combined 546 yards on the ground.
“We’ll have our hands full but we’re up for the challenge,” said WVU junior left tackle Don Barclay, owner of 26 career starts.
The Wolfpack are content and intent on attacking the backfield with a group led by, but not limited to, 6-foot-5, 293-pound defensive tackle J.R. Sweezy and 6-foot-1, 231-pound linebacker Nate Irving.
Irving, a second team Walter Camp All-American, ranks fourth in the country with 20 ½ tackles for loss to go with a team-best 93 total stops, while Sweezy shows 13 tackles for loss and a team-best six sacks to go with 46 tackles.
“They’ve got a talented front seven,” said Barclay. “They are very good at disguising their blitz packages. It’s probably the best front we’ve seen all year long.”
Being prepared means hours and hours of film study for Barclay and his fellow linemen. Despite analyzing tape after tape, the Wolfpack have yet to reveal their secrets.
Deception has been the key to the NC State’s pressure, not tipping its hand to opponents by a change in the hand placement by a defensive linemen before the snap, or they way they angle their bodies.
“They do a fantastic job of mixing things up,” said Johnson. “They disguise where their pressure is coming from which makes things so difficult. They are going to test us and we have to just be prepared.”
The Mountaineers have seen a variety of blitz schemes this season, including tough go-arounds with LSU and South Florida, both whom rely on a menacing front seven.
“They are very physical and very fast,” said Johnson. “Are they comparable to LSU? Yes. Are they as fast as South Florida? Yes. Are they unique in their own right? Yes.”
After back-to-back losses in conference play during the month of October, West Virginia reeled off four straight wins to close its season. During that four-game stretch, the Mountaineer offense averaged 31 points and 390 yards per game.
“The last four games have been pretty good for us,” said Barclay of the team’s recent offensive success. “We are playing the way a lot of us on the line expected us to play (the whole time).
“We’ve been able to get the ball in the hands of our playmakers and have started to create some balance in our running and passing games. It’s definitely something to build off of and carry into the bowl game.”
The Mountaineers have registered seven 400-yard-plus offensive performances this season, including a season-best 523 yards in the regular-season finale against Rutgers. Quarterback Geno Smith threw for a career-best 352 yards against the Scarlet Knights.
A week earlier, WVU seemed to have its way on the ground and in the air, using a balanced attack to defeat conference rival Pitt. The Mountaineer offensive line opened holes to rush for 148 yards and created enough time to compile 212 passing yards for 360 yards of offense against an outstanding Panther defense.
“The line has been improving each week, as with the rest of our team,” said Smith of his beefy bodyguards. “They have a tough job to do, (accounting for) all the pressure that comes at them.”
NC State’s pressure-based defense also allows big-play potential against a Wolfpack secondary that has struggled at times. Against Maryland in the regular-season finale, the Terps found dinosaur-sized holes in the back end. Maryland threw for 417 yards and put up 38 points in the victory.
“We need to block and allow Geno to get the ball in the hands of Jock (Sanders), Tavon (Austin), Noel (Devine) and Brad (Starks),” said Johnson of the big-play potential. “They can do so much in space, and it starts up front with us.”
The defense is what many considered NC State’s Achilles heel year ago, a season that ended with the team not making a bowl game at all. But this season’s aggressive unit is among the nation’s elite, forcing offenses to sputter and stall for long periods of a game.
“This is why you play the game,” said Barclay. “Playing against quality teams and quality players; it always makes me want to raise my level of play. I’m going out there to give maximum effort to give my team the best chance to win.”
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