The Mountaineers' defensive stoppage of the pass might be the chink in the armor of this seemingly solid stop corps. It is third in the Big East in rushing defense, total defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense, mostly behind Rutgers' surprising Scarlet Knights. And the set-up of the 3-3-5 defense dictates that teams might move the ball some, but the bet is that collegiate offenses will misfire, via a hold or dropped passes or other miscues, enough times that the no-huddle spread will simply take over. Thus far West Virginia is a perfect seven-of-seven with the theory. But they've seen nothing like the deck that's stacked against them with these Cards, who move the ball most effectively via the pass, and who have a signal caller who can sit back and pick apart a defensive backfield – if given time.
"In order to be a good secondary you have to be able to do that, to cover for an elapsed time," cornerback Vaughn Rivers said. "But sometimes it does feel like you are sitting back there for an hour."
Enter pressurization, something WVU seems to have hit upon more, like it has opposing quarterbacks, in the last three games. After getting no sacks in its first four games, the Mountaineers have 14 total against Mississippi State, Syracuse and Connecticut. And consider that MSU's Omarr Conner and the Cuse's much-lamented Perry Patterson are more mobile than Louisville's Brian Brohm. They slide the pocket better, can escape well with the feet. And if they aren't Pat White, well, they aren't Brohm, either. The major problem is that Brohm's wideouts, like uber-stud Mario Urrutia, who has two 100-plus yard receiving games this year alone, and tight end Gary Barnidge, a looming threat for the odd stack – which at times seems to ignore the position like the West Virginia offense – are simply more talented than anybody WVU has played. So bringing heat on the pocket might be the only way to cool the U of L offense.
"Our success is coming from the defensive line and us bringing blitzes from different areas," bandit safety Eric Wicks said. "If we can show more blitzes and then sometimes not come, it can help us even more. The defensive line is doing more stunting and things to get pressure on the quarterback and get him rattled a bit. Most of the defensive linemen were getting off quick and the ends were getting around them, forcing the quarterback to scramble. It did take a toll on them." Connecticut proclaimed never to have played a defense as fast as West Virginia. Quarterback Matt Bonislawski said he "never felt comfortable." He was replaced with backup D.J. Hernandez, who was intercepted on a fine display of awareness and athleticism by Rivers. Both combined to complete just 15 of 34 passes for no scores. There were tossed for minus-24 yards on the three sacks and actually lost 15 more yards on various runs throughout the 37-11 WVU win.
"I thought our young tackles had some problems against the quickness off the end, and when they got beat, they panicked," Connecticut head coach Randy Edsall said. "Some of the fundamentals went out the window."
Yet West Virginia's never did. 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.
"It's better pressure up front, defensive lineman Keilen Dykes said. "Once we got one, it trickled down and everybody started getting sacks. We are wrapping up and tackling better, too. We strained a bit harder. To get a sack, you can do the moves and all that, but you gotta strain. Ten times they drop back, you might only get one shot."
The Mountaineers have expanded on the pressure packages in the last three games. Against Mississippi State, it showed an edge rush via the cornerback that was unused in the first four games. It faked blitzes up the middle, then dropped, confusing Conner and later Patterson. And think not for a moment that defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel will hold back portions of the arsenal for a later date. This is the one to propel either team to the big dance.
"I think we are hitting our blitzes better," linebacker Jay Henry said. "And it does have to do with the coverage. Guys are covering down better and I think we are getting better blitzing. We are not messing up as far as where guys are supposed to go and we are executing better. We are not having as many defects."
West Virginia executed well in the second half of its last home game and held Syracuse to just three points, that off of a turnover deep in WVU's own end, and 81 net rushing yards on 35 run plays (2.3 ypc) total and a whopping 38 yards on 23 second half snaps. Part of that is certainly forcing Syracuse into a one-dimensional style via the WVU offense, which scored 21 third quarter points to turn a 17-14 halftime score into a 41-14 lead.
But it then chased that performance a week later with a dominating effort against Connecticut in which the Huskies managed just 210 total offensive yards on 67 plays, including 95 net rushing yards on 33 carries. That averages to a paltry 3.1 and 2.9 yards per play, respectively. And though both offense, and teams, for that matter, will not be confused with Louisville, the pressure on the pocket certainly helped in both games.
"We have been working on it a lot in practice, changing up some fronts, bringing different pressures," Wicks said. "But, no matter what, we gotta come out physical and hit guys in the mouth. That plays a big role in our defense."