Getting Defensive

Even in the final years of the Rich Rodriguez era, when its offenses were at their most explosive, West Virginia's football teams have struggled to put points on the board against South Florida. Thus, Mountaineer head coach Bill Stewart believes his defense will have to have a banner night against the Bulls for his team to win its Big East Conference opener Thursday night.

In the last four seasons, WVU has failed to score even 20 points against this week's opposition. The Mountaineers scored 19 in Tampa last year, managed only 13 in Morgantown in 2008, tallied 13 in 2007, and scored 19 against the Bulls at home in 2006.

Not coincidentally, West Virginia is a paltry 1-3 in those games. So while Stewart hopes his offense can continue to sustain the torrid pace it set in a 49-10 waxing of UNLV on Saturday, he's expecting a defensive battle during Thursday night's nationally televised clash.

"We've not done a great job scoring a lot of points [against USF], so our defense is going to have to play better than they've ever, ever played," said the Mountaineers' third-year head coach. "I don't know if we can hold those people to under what it's going to take to beat them. I just don't know right now. I don't feel real good right now, and I'm just being honest. We're not there yet. We've got a lot to do here in the next three days."

Indeed, the short week leaves Stewart and his squad little time to prepare for the Bulls' offense, led by quarterback B.J. Daniels.

The third-year sophomore had a field day against WVU at Raymond James Stadium last season, throwing for 232 yards and three touchdowns and adding another 104 yards on the ground in his team's 30-19 win.

The 2010 campaign hasn't been quite as kind to Daniels and company. South Florida sits at 3-2 overall and 0-1 in Big East Conference play after a 13-9 home loss to Syracuse on Saturday. Daniels was 9-of-23 through the air for a mere 124 yards against the Orange.

Regardless, Stewart said much of his defense's focus this week will be devoted to finding a way to stop first-year coach Skip Holtz's signal-caller.

"We've got to do what we do, and that's just play our defense," Stewart said. "But if you blitz him, you'd better get to ol' B.J. And if you don't blitz him, you'd better cover them, because he'll throw the ball right over your head. That's what's happened to us in the past."

SKIP AND STEW:

Daniels isn't the only Bull that has proven to be a thorn in WVU's side. Holtz, USF's new coach, came to Tampa after spending five seasons at East Carolina, giving the Mountaineers fits on seemingly every occasion those squads met.

Most famously, Holtz's Pirates gave Stewart his first loss as West Virginia's coach, a 24-3 loss in Greenville, N.C., in the second game of the 2008 campaign.

That loss made Stewart and others stand up and take notice of the job Holtz had done building the ECU program into a competitor. Stewart said he expected nothing less from Holtz in Tampa.

"He's just a great coach, very solid," said Stewart. "He has a great coaching staff with friends of mine in the business for a long, long time -- [offensive line coach] Steve Shankweiler, [quarterbacks coach] Peter Vaas, [defensive coordinator and linebackers coach] Mark Snyder. I could go on and on."

"They're great guys [and] great coaches. [Offensive graduate assistant] Steve Bird, heck, he and I worked together here [Bird was WVU's passing game coordinator from 2001-04]. I really respect these guys, and that respect starts with Skip. Believe me, he'll have them ready to play. There's no doubt in my mind."

The USF program had already become a consistent contender in the Big East Conference under long-time coach Jim Leavitt, who led the Bulls from the inception of the school's football program in 1997 until being fired in January after an investigation found he had struck a player in the locker room at halftime of a game against Louisville last season.

But Stewart said Holtz has been unafraid to change things to fit his style since arriving in Tampa.

"He's just put his plan in, and you put your stamp on it," Stewart said. "I changed things from my predecessor, and he changed things from his. That's just kind of what you do. But Skip Holtz is very, very sound. They have a tremendous scheme, I think, in all three phases."

RIFLE REPORTS:

  • With rumors and reports circulating about the possibility of the Big East possibly adding either TCU or Villanova to its ranks, Stewart was asked what he thought the proper course of action might be.

    He didn't directly answer the question, but he did offer a bit of humor.

    "You might want to wait and ask me that during the Big East basketball tournament," he said, referring to a televised interview from this past March in which he predicted the league's demise. "I get a lot more headlines when you do that."

  • Many of Daniels' biggest plays last season came at the expense of WVU cornerback Keith Tandy, who was victimized by both Carlton Mitchell and A.J. Love for three big plays. Mitchell had catches of 49 and 69 yards, while Love had a 45-yard grab, all of which came with Tandy in coverage.

    Tandy has occasionally had struggles since, but has emerged as a leader in the secondary for most of this season. The cornerback had a pair of interceptions on Saturday against UNLV.

    "Keith has gotten better," Stewart said, recalling Tandy's rough outing in Tampa a year ago. "He has a short memory -- and you'd better if you're going to play corner.

    "I just think Keith has matured and he's a tremendous athlete. But most importantly, gang, Keith Tandy is just a great kid. He'd be the first to admit, ‘I had to grow up fast that night.' All he's done is gotten better and better."

  • Given further opportunity to look at game film from his team's 49-10 win over the Rebels on Saturday, especially the play of the reserves and younger Mountaineers who saw most of the action in the second half, Stewart seemed relatively pleased -- particularly with several of the reserves on the team's offensive line.

    "I didn't get to study the young linemen as hard as I wanted to, but I got the receivers and quarterbacks and running backs," Stewart said. "So [the coaching staff] met last night. We were in here burning the midnight oil as you might imagine, and we were getting ready to go home, and I said, ‘Guys, how did our young line play?' They were really very complimentary. So it was nice to see our young guys get in."


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