"It's the first time I've ever had to play every kid," defensive secondary coach Tony Gibson said with disbelief after the game. "Every single guy on the traveling squad played today. I think we played nine or ten different people. It was just crazy out there. We had guys cramping and getting hurt, but they fought all the way to the end. I'll give them that."
The roster of players who participated at cornerback and free safety included Dee McCann, Larry Williams, Vaughn Rivers, Thandi Smith and Jerry White, and while they did indeed give their best efforts, they were also hampered by their inability to play a number of different coverages. That was partially due to the fact that several players had to play at different positions due to the rash of injuries at the boundary corner.
"No question," was Gibson's response when asked if continuous streams of substitutions affected the number of coverages he could call. "I had guys out of position all day. Alton (Dee) had never played the boundary corner, and he played it in the first quarter. This was his first real action other than Virginia Tech. Antonio Lewis was supposed to be the first sub there, and he was out. He got an ankle Thursday in practice, and we hoped he would be able to go today, but he was not. So I had both boundary corners out, and Thandi Smith came in at the end for his first real playing action there."
Being stuck in their base defense really hurt the Mountaineers on Rutgers' last two drives of the game. With players such as White and Smith on the field in an unfamiliar situation, WVU was unable to do much in the way of disguising or mixing up its coverages, and as a result the short passing game opened up for Hart, who threw for 142 yards and two touchdowns on the Scarlet Knights' final two drives. Compare that to Hart's 131 passing yards in the first half, and it's apparent what the loss of Jones, Mims and Addae did to the Mountaineer defense.
Of course, West Virginia's 3-3-5 stack has always been vulnerable to short curls and crossing patterns, which Gibson concedes, but there was no doubt that Hart was in a comfort zone in the final period.
"Giving up a quick throw here and there has always been the weakness of this defense, so that's going to happen," Gibson admitted. "We just have to get ready for the next down. They got into a rhythm on their last drive – they slanted us to death all the way down the field on that one. Then on the last play, we thought we had a sack and let up on the back end and we came off the receiver and gave up a touchdown."
Mistakes such as that are part of the learning process, and Gibson hopes his young charges took several lessons from the contest, including being ready at any time. At one point, WVU's secondary consisted of Thandi Smith, Vaughn Rivers and Jerry White – names that aren't familiar to many Mountaineer fans. They, and their teammates on the second and third level of the depth chart, were charged with stopping Rutgers' final effort to win the game, and they didn't exactly come through with flying colors.
"We've got a lot of work to do. Those guys have to realize they are only one play away, and I don't think some of them do realize that until they have to go in," said Gibson.
In the end, however, the Mountaineers did come up with the win, and in the process got a number of players experience during crunch time, which is often more valuable than playing during a blowout. And with a number of those players, such as Rivers and Williams still early in their careers, those hard-earned lessons could pay dividends for several seasons.
"I'm happy we got a W, and we did it with a lot of young kids," Gibson observed. "If you looked out there, all those guys were freshmen and redshirt freshmen, so if that means anything at all we shouldn't have to worry about the secondary for a while. As long as I don't screw them up."
Gibson, of course, was joking when he made that last statement, and there's no doubt that he has a number of solid players to build with. When he comes back from his injury, Lewis will also be a force to be reckoned with at cornerback, and he also still has Vince Beamer waiting in the wings. When those players are blanketing receivers and knocking down passes in 2005 and 2006, they will likely look back on the education they received at Rutgers Stadium in 2004 as one of the building blocks of that success.