Defense Proves Its Mettle

Overshadowed by breakout performances and another round of backfield bust outs was arguably the finest defensive performance of the season for West Virginia.

The No. 5 Mountaineers (7-0, 2-0 Big East) held Connecticut (3-5, 0-2) to just 210 yards of total offense in their 37-11 win Friday. The rush defense, which ranked 18th entering the game, surrendering an average of 88.33 yards per game, gave up 95 against the Huskies, the ninth-ranked rushing offense in the nation at 209.17 yards per game. Connecticut gained 2.9 yards per carry, which limits what it can do on the following downs when it gets to second and third and longs.

Better, there were no major breakdowns in the secondary. UConn is a run-first team that relies upon a steady gain of yardage. Once it gets behind schedule – meaning it has not gained the necessary yards on first or second down to feel comfortable on third – it is forced to try to throw downfield. West Virginia covered that aspect of play as well, and quarterbacks Matt Bonislawski and D.J. Hernandez combined to complete 15 of 34 passes for two interceptions, a paltry mean of 7.7 yards per completion. Plus, the Mountaineers had three sacks for minus-24 yards, putting the steady-but-unspectacular UConn offense in a hole it never got out of.

"Our quarterbacks got hit too many times," Connecticut head coach Randy Edsall said. "We are an offense right now that has to stay on track and stay on schedule to have success. If you do that, we can move the ball. There are a lot of things we need to continue to work on and we will do that. We will take a look at it and see what is best for us."

Sure, the match-ups favored more-talented West Virginia from the start. The 3-3-5 odd stack set stuffs the run with alarming efficiency. But it did it again. And it held a team that cut use short dump passes and a solid tailback in all-time UConn career rushing yards leader Terry Caulley – the Maryland prep Player of the Year in 2001 – to hurt it with sound, secure play to 3.1 yards per play. It got the much-missed three-and-outs (the Huskies converted just four of 15), and got off the field so the spread, no-huddle could work its magic and collar any thoughts of a Husky upset.

When West Virginia's offense got going to score twice in its last two possessions, as long as it did not turn the ball over, it did not matter if it scored again. The 20-3 halftime lead was more than enough for a defense which showed some improvement, opponent considered, and has a performance upon which to build heading into the much-anticipated Nov. 2 showdown of undefeateds at No. 7 Louisville (7-0, 2-0).

The best aspect of that, in examining the game 12 days out, is that Cardinal quarterback Brian Brohm is not a mobile passer. He likes to stand in the pocket and deliver the football. That takes some planning out of the game for defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, who can bring a myriad of blitzes with which he is comfortable. West Virginia pressured Connecticut effectively, as there were numerous hurries and knockdowns in addition to the trio of sacks.

"I thought our young tackles had some problems against the quickness off the end, and when they got beat, they panicked," Edsall said. "Some of the fundamentals went out the window."

Yet WVU's never did. Wider and the widest, deeper than the deepest. Crisp tackling for the most part. It pressured, harassed, blitzed, played the run. It prevented the big play, which will go a long way to holding U of L in check and allowing the offense, if not the possessions it needs, then at least the lower score it would desire. In short, it simply made things miserable for Connecticut.

"They kind of remind me of Georgia Tech a little bit with the way they are constantly moving around and bringing guys from all angles," Bonislawski said. "You could tell the speed in the defensive backfield, too, the way they play and cover things. It was the speed. They took us out of our game. The things they did and the pressure they brought made it a lot harder."

Which is the entire goal. Now West Virginia has a dozen days to prep for the most potent offense it will face all regular season, one which put of 44 points on it last year, albeit in three overtimes, and one which averages a Big East-best 507.83 yards per game, which ranks second in the NCAA. One that's an NCAA first in passing efficiency, West Virginia's perceived weakness. And one that, like the Mountaineer offense, ranks in the top five in scoring. Louisville will cause a lot of late nights in the Puskar Center. But there is a very solid game now upon which to build, both for individual players and team confidence.

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