You have to sport it," defensive tackle Keilen Dykes said. "In college life, you don't get many clean shirts, so you have to get it when you can."
That applies to third down chances and getting off the field as well. The irony is that the No. 5 Mountaineers (6-0, 1-0 Big East) get many third down chances. They are, in the slightly slang words of defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, "stoning" teams on first and second down. They are dominating, much like they did in the latter 30 minutes against the ‘Cuse. And before this reads like beating the dead horse, the point here is that the problems certainly are being addressed.
Head coach Rich Rodriguez noted, as many fans likely noticed, that WVU is shuffling its third down defense. It's offering the SWAT package, a unit designed for speed with just three rushers, two of whom are usually bring Johnny Dingle and Marc Magro, one linebacker in Reed Williams and seven defensive backs. It is also using four-man fronts and varying blitzes, like one from the cornerbacks that was unseen until Mississippi State. It worked, dropping quarterback Omarr Conner twice.
The question, then, is why, when West Virginia is doing so well on first and second down, would it want to change up much of its look and personnel for a key down?
"Because," Rodriguez said, "teams change what they do on third down. And I really like our third down packages. We have a lot to choose from."
Indeed, a squad can be fairly predictable on third and seven. It's typically a pass. But second and 10 could easily be a pass or run. Sure, teams will change it up, notice West Virginia has seven players on the field that look like floating helmets when they turn sideways and decide to unleash some power. They'll toss that shovel pass. So West Virginia is not going to stuff everything all the time. But against Connecticut, the Big East's worst team in terms of conversions at 27 of 88 for 30.7 percent, the Mountaineers can test what is working and what isn't. Of course, the win comes first, but in attempting to win, WVU will be looking to see what units play best, what it might be time to scrap, and what should be scrapbooked in for the rest of the year.
"We have been working on it a lot in practice, changing up some fronts, bringing different pressures," cornerback Vaughn Rivers said. "I think we are swarming to the ball more, making more plays. We are trying to switch it up and get some pressure. The coaches try to get a feel for it during the game. On the first third down we might have the SWAT package in, then on the next one have the regular unit in, just to see which one is hotter an doing better. They are trying to change it up, but at times I think it is good to stay out there as a unit when on first and second down we have made a stop. The whole team is excited to get the third down stop, where if you bring another unit in, they are jittery with new legs and antsiness just getting on the field. It has positives and negatives."
The inkling here is that this staff is doing what it does better than any other: Peaking the Mountaineers at the correct time. It's seldom (read: one year in six) that West Virginia has played worse at the end of the year under Rodriguez than at the beginning. And we're not meaning just the usual improvement, but a vastly better football team at the end. Casteel is tweaking, looking and learning while his young secondary does the same. There will be some breakdowns during the process.
"Everybody wants to talk about the third down plays, and I understand that," Catsteel said. "But you are talking about a handful of plays from becoming a very good third down defense."
But that's the line, isn't it? Hold Mississippi State without that shovel pass, be able to tackle a power set. Limit Syracuse to two of its first four instead of four of four, and the third down talk is irrelevant. Games, and stats, change on a few plays, and West Virginia is looking, and looking hard, at how to get more out of its defense, or perhaps less out of an opposing offense, on the key snap.
"It is just fixing little things in our coverage on third down, whatever package is in there," safety Eric Wicks said. "We were not playing as physical as we needed to in the first half (against Syracuse). That and tackling well eliminates a lot of problems."
This weekend WVU faces a running-based team that uses play action. It's a solid test, but likely nothing near what the next foe, No. 6 Louisville, will be. The team can earn their stripes, and shirts, if it can merely come close to solid efficiency. It need not duplicate the second half output against Syracuse, when the Orange ran 23 plays and gained 38 yards, but rather the effort from it. Right now, this is a very good defense figuring out what works for the major tests to come. Friday marks the final quiz.