On the Defensive

Many fans watching the defensive play of West Virginia's football team have shown various degrees of concern over different aspects of the play of Mountaineer defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel's troops.

However, following WVU's 27-10 win over East Carolina, the innovative Mountaineer coach wasn't down on his defense, which held ECU to 4.5 yards per play and forced three and outs on four of the Pirates' ten meaningful possessions.

While those same fans are concerned about sacks and believe that stopping every pass attempt is the only acceptable outcome, Casteel is focused on more realistic goals – things that win games. Two of those things are stopping runs for lost yardage, and getting more consistent effort and focus on every snap.

"One of the things we've been lacking is generating negative plays," said Casteel, referring not only to the sacks wished for by followers but also tackles in the backfield on running plays. "And the plays that were going for four and five yards, if we do a better job, then those are one- and two-yard gains. But I think the kids are getting better, especially as they learn to understand the importance of every snap. Some of the young guys are starting to figure that out, but they haven't had that urgency all the time. I think they are getting better with that, though. We did plenty of good things, and there are some things the kids have to continue to learn from. By and large we are proud of them."

The numbers bear Casteel out. The Mountaineers had six tackles for losses in the Pirate backfield for a total of 17 yards in losses. While the total lost yardage wasn't a huge number, those plays represented lost opportunities for East Carolina to establish a ball control attack, and forced it to be one-dimensional. That's a stated goal of the Mountaineer game plan, and when WVU can establish that in a game, wins usually result.

Of course, Casteel wasn't 100% pleased with his team's play. Some technique and execution errors led directly to all of ECU's points, and also prolonged some drives past the point of his liking.

"We had a couple of breakdowns on the last field goal drive," Casteel said of ECU's final scoring drive, on which the Pirates completed inside slants for a total of 32 yards, and allowed the pirates a third down and a fourth down conversion. "We had a couple of chances to get out, and in a tight ball game, you can't make those kinds of mistakes."

One mistake that pained Casteel in particular was the way in which ECU receivers were allowed to get inside releases on pass patterns toward the middle of the field. When defenders allow receivers to get inside them on slants and square-ins, completions usually result.

"They were running inside cuts and our kid as to wall it," explained Casteel, referring to a technique where the defender forces the receiver to go outside rather than straight inside on his release. "We did it a few times and had some chances to pick it off, and we were mixing coverages up, so it was different guys at different times [making the mistake].

However, there were plenty of good things coming from the pass defense. While yielding completions can be frustrating to watch, it's better than giving up big plays. ECU managed just one of those on the evening, and that was due to an alignment error.

"I lined up about two yards off, and was out of position," said bandit Eric Wicks of East Carolina's lone touchdown, a 47-yard pass to Aundrae Allison. However, after that early mistake, the Mountaineers did an excellent job on the senior star, who finished with just 54 receiving yards.

"Allison had just four catches," Casteel said. "He got us early, and we had a bust on that [coverage], but for the most part I think the whole group played as well as they have so far."

Casteel also has to be pleased with West Virginia's red zone defense. The Mountaineers have yielded just two touchdowns and four field goals on 10 opponent trips inside their 20-yard line this year. They shut down ECU in the zone as well, allowing just a field goal on four Pirate forays, stopping one drive with a Charles Pugh fumble recovery, a second on downs, and the final one with a Antonio Lewis interception

"The kids did a nice job and elevated their game," said Casteel of the red zone stops. "I don't know how many times they threw it down there at the end, but we had a couple of chances to intercept the ball and end it a little bit earlier. We have won a lot of games over the last four or five years down inside the 10- or 15-yard line, and that's something we take pride in. We work on that a couple of times per week."

Obviously, whatever Casteel is devising is working well. WVU often drops eight players in those situations, crowding the passing lanes with defenders and forcing opposing quarterbacks to drop the ball off short or force a deeper throw into the teeth of the defense. West Virginia forced ten consecutive incompletions inside the red zone on ECU's final two drives (one didn't count due to a shaky pass interference call on Larry Williams). Those are numbers that Casteel can certainly live with as well.

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