Feeling the Rush

  • By John Antonik
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  • January 04, 2011 11:27 AM
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia will have several key contributors to replace on defense in 2011, for sure, but the Mountaineers could have one of the best pass rushing tandems in the country next year in seniors Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller.

The two combined for 23 sacks on a West Virginia defense that spent the entire 2010 campaign ranked among the nation’s top five in scoring and total yards.

Miller emerged as a pass rushing threat two years ago by producing a team-best nine sacks. This year he bagged nine more to give him 21 ½ for his career, putting him fourth on the WVU career list a half-sack behind former NFL first-rounder Renaldo Turnbull’s 22. Canute Curtis is the school record holder with 34 ½ sacks, including 16 ½ during his All-American campaign in 1996.

Irvin, a junior college transfer, threatened Curtis’ single season sack record in 2010 by bagging 14 in 13 games. He had two in the bowl game against NC State - the fifth time he had two or more sacks in a game in 2010; Irvin had a season-high three sacks against Maryland.

What Irvin and Miller did this year will be difficult to match, that is unless they chose to do an encore in 2011. After some extensive digging in the record books it’s difficult to come up with a more effective pass rushing duo in school history. Steve Hathaway and Dave Oblak combined for 22 sacks in 1983, the Curtis-Stills pairing produced 20 ½ sacks in 1996 while Renaldo Turnbull and Chris Parker teamed up for 18 sacks in 1988.

Hathaway-Oblak and Turnbull-Parker were inside-outside players while Curtis and Stills were both edge rushers very similar to the way Miller and Irvin were used this year. If you recall, Stills was a third-down pass rushing specialist in ’96 and had very little in the way of run stopping responsibilities, much like Irvin this season.

And while Curtis, Stills and Turnbull are generally considered to be the best three pass rushers in school history (you could also probably throw outside linebacker Darryl Talley in there as well), each needed at least a year before putting up big numbers. Irvin got 14 his first season in the program. With a full year of off-season training and more time learning the defense, it is possible Irvin could get 15 or more sacks in 2011.

The two Irvin did get against NC State moved him into third on the school’s single season list 2 ½ behind Curtis.

“It’s good but it doesn’t mean nothing if you lose,” he said after West Virginia’s 23-7 loss to the Wolfpack last Tuesday night. “It wouldn’t matter if I made five sacks and had 20 tackles, it doesn’t mean nothing if you don’t get a W.”

West Virginia’s defense was certainly good enough to put up a lot of Ws in 2010, perhaps even more than the nine the Mountaineers got if the offense could have done a little better job of holding on to the football. WVU had 14 turnovers in its four losses, including a season-high five against NC State in the bowl game, and Irvin admits there were times when the defensive players were frustrated with the offensive mistakes that killed scoring opportunities or placed them in bad situations.

“You’re going to get mad, that’s just about being a person,” he said. “But you can’t lash out and get mad at them because at the end of the day we’re still a team. If they win we win – it’s not a one-sided thing. You get mad when they fumble but we could have done more, too.”

Irvin explains.

“There were a couple of plays we missed,” he said. “We missed Russell (Wilson) a few times and when I got the sack and forced the fumble, if we would have recovered it that could have been a game changer. Everybody played their butts off, but once again the ball didn’t fall in our corner.”

Irvin says the disappointing performance in the 2010 Champs Sports Bowl will fuel his desire to become an even better player during the off-season.

“Yeah, it’s motivation because I’m going to be a senior next year,” he said. “When the off-season workouts come we’re going to look back on this and we’re going to be like, man, we can’t go out like this. Me, Julian Miller, and all of us who are going to be seniors, we don’t want to go out like this.”

And Irvin has plenty to work on. The next step for him is to become an every down player, one, so the Mountaineers can utilize his tremendous all-around skills and, two, so Irvin can become a more appealing player to NFL scouts. Had NC State been a more balanced offensive team Irvin likely wouldn’t have received so many reps in the bowl game.

“They weren’t really running the ball and they were throwing on first and second down and that’s why I was probably in there,” he said.

Getting Irvin ready to become a three-down player will be one of the top priorities for the defensive staff this spring. Developing a dependable nose tackle to play alongside Miller and Irvin is another big priority.

If the defensive staff can do that, then West Virginia could be close to where they were in 2010. That’s because with Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller returning, two critical pieces to the puzzle are already in place.

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