Weak Link Turns To Strength

Coming into the Virginia Tech game, West Virginia's pass defense was, at best, in the bend but don't break mode.

That's not to say that the Mountaineers' pass defense was poor through the first half of 2003. The Mountaineers had yielded 225.8 yards per game through the air this year, but some of that yardage can be attributed to the fact that WVU, with only three true defensive backs dedicated to pass coverage, is bound to give up passing yardage.

Bandit Mike Lorello has the coverage skills necessary to play in the secondary, but you're as likely to find the budding star roving near the line of scrimmage or making a tackle in the backfield as you are in pass coverage. And spur Leandre Washington is, first and foremost, a run stuffer. That leaves Adam Jones, Brina King, and Lance Frazier as the last, and sometimes first, line of defense against the pass.

One of the main ideas behind WVU's 3-3-5 defense is to overload running lanes by bringing the six front defenders, plus at least one of the remaining five, close to the line. That strategy obviously puts big pressure on the remaining players in the secondary. As a result, WVU's goal is to limit yards after receptions by making crisp tackles, and not give up anything big.

So far this year, that strategy has been successful. Coming into the Tech game, WVU was allowing pass completions at the rate of 60.8% per game. However, the Mountaineers only allowed only 10.3 yards per catch to their opponent, and had given up just five touchdowns through the air.

So, while the strategy was working, it did cause Mountaineer fans some trepidation as opponents completed numerous short passes against their defense.

Fast forward to Wednesday night at the State's land grant institution. West Virginia's "bend but don't break" philosophy turned into one of "don't yield a dang thing". West Virginia gave up just 14 completions to the Hokies, held them to 146 yards through the air and picked off three Bryan Randall tossess.

One of the lasting images of this game will be of Randall futilely surveing the Mountaineer pass defense for a gap, then finally being either sacked or forced from the pocket. And once again, the Mountaineers didn't give up the big play.

What was the difference? First, WVU had seven or eight players in coverage for much of the night. And while this wasn't anything new, it did give Tech a different look that they haven't seen this year. The Mountaineers also stayed at home when Tech went with play action passes, as was brilliantly illustrated when King refused to bite on a Randall fake and picked off his pass deep in WVU territory in the third quarter.

Even more credit has to go to WVU's linebackers, which not only were quick off the ball to stuff the running game, but also got into their coverage areas and shut down many of the dump passes to tight ends and running backs that usually turn into first downs. And when passes were caught, the tackling was excellent, with Hokie receivers often stopped dead in their tracks.

West Virginia's front three also took advantage of the outstanding coverage, producing four sacks that were all the byproduct of great downfield coverage. And while Tech helped WVU by stubbornly staying with the pocket passing game rather than trying to get the mobile Randall on the corner or into the running game more, the Mountaineer defense still deserves the lion's share of the credit for their best all-around performance of the season.

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