Entering the Backyard Brawl at Pitt (6-4, 2-3) this Thursday, WVU has yet to decide which combination to use against quarterback Tyler Palko, inarguably the finest on-the-fly playmaker the Mountaineers will face this season. The good news: The lack of snaps by Rivers and Lewis (they played just a combined 21; Lewis had a bum shoulder) means they are fresher for Pitt. And Allen and Dervil gained experience against a base power-oriented set that did not often threaten to throw the deep ball. It was, indeed, a great first step. The bad: It's a giant leap from UC to what Pitt does with Palko (161 of 235 for 2,223 yards and 22 TD against six INT) and wideouts Derek Kinder (40 catches, 681 yards, six TD) and Oderick Turner (34/507/5) – which is throw the deep ball early and often.
"We know they will challenge us deep," WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez said. "That is something we will practice this week. We have to be ready for that. We just gotta let it loose. If we make a mistake, so be it. There will be growing pains."
Dervil played 79 snaps last week, by far the most of any Mountaineer corner. Williams was also in often, but a knee injury in the game sidelined him. He is expected to play against Pitt. Allen played on most special teams, though backfield coach Tony Gibson labeled him as slightly behind Dervil in terms of readiness. This game will be a change from last week, when the pass was a secondary weapon to be defended as much. Look for West Virginia to back off the man-to-man defense it used against the overmatched Bearcats and go into its more traditional zone in the odd stack. It will also have to bring contained pressure on Palko and not allow him to set back and read the defense. Too much comfort will lead to huge plays in the secondary, something WVU cannot allow.
"The best part was being able to sit down with those guys and watch the film," Gibson said of the newcomers. "It's them out there now, and they can see what they did wrong and right as opposed to watching Vaughn Rivers or Antonio Lewis. I'll take the heat for any performance problems. We were eight weeks in and the kids knew better what they were doing. It was time to see what they could do in a game. We are mixing it some back there. I am not sure who will start where each week, because a lot of that is determined by practice."
Dervil has shown an ability to stay with receivers in practice. At 6-0, 180 pounds, he has more size than Lewis (5-10, 185) or Rivers (a generous 5-9, 170), and his quickness means he recovers will on any double moves. He did just that against UC on one play, and on another, a late two-point conversion try, he intercepted a pass, one of three WVU picks on a day when the defense also forced four fumbles, recovering one (on a fourth down) and recorded 5.5 tackles for loss, four of which were sacks, and four pass break-ups.
"I thought Dervil played well," Gibson said. "He did some good things. He missed a few tackles that he could have made, and he got beat on one play. He was disappointed in that. He did almost everything right on that, though. He recognized the double move, he did not bite on anything. He flipped his hips. The guy just out-ran him. He did what we asked."
Dervil totaled five tackles, good for fourth-most on the team. He just turned 20, so his body is more mature than most freshmen, and he has picked up the defense effectively. At times, it's not so much what players did wrong, it's just that the coaching staff would like to see what others can do in game situations.
"We are mixing it up, getting everybody experience," Gibson said. "You can do things in practice, try to simulate things. But it is nothing like a game. Really, I think they did fine for their first time. Boogie I think was a little nervous. He settled some later in the game. With his size, he can help us."
If he can play well, Allen will be a sizable threat in the secondary. At a well-built 6-1 and 195 pounds, he is by far the tallest and heaviest defensive back in West Virginia's arsenal. It makes match-ups easier, and gives the staff less headaches when trying to play a receiver like U of L's 6-6 Mario Urrutia.
"The coaches said we would play man, and we did," Allen said. "At first, I was a little nervous. Then after the first plays it was like practice mode. It all feels the same. Once you get past the first things, you are good. You get caught up in everything, you can do the wrong assignment or something. You block out the crowd. Well, except on third downs. You hear it on third down. I give myself a C. I don't really think I played great. I was coming up hard, but I was not wrapping up well. I am coming full speed, and you think you will knock the guy out or over. But this isn't high school anymore. These guys are bigger."
Allen had five tackles and an interception he returned 24 yards. The Jacksonville native is expected to see the field more as the season progresses. After Pitt, West Virginia has nine days off before hosting South Florida, then again plays at home in the regular season finale against Rutgers, a match-up that could be for the league title.
"We ran the same things, just West Virginia defense," Dervil said. "I felt good out there. I had 10 guys holding the rope with me, and we played well together. We ran some blitzes and we played more man. That is something we might do more often. It is the coaches' call. We are all just working hard. Hopefully, all these players can make us a stronger unit overall. That's what we want going into the last games of the season, to get better and better as we go. If we do that, we will be all right, no matter who we play."
Coverage and pressure – always the two keys to solid pass defense – will be especially important against Pitt. The Panthers are the Big East leader in pass efficiency (176.3 rating) and rank second in pass offense (232.2 ypg) and third in scoring offense (33 points per game). They are third in sacks against (13), and with 244 passing plays, plus those in which no passes were thrown when Palko scrambled, to be dropped for a loss just 13 times is a testament to the mobility of the senior signal caller.
If the Mountaineers can combine the two and limit Palko's downfield passes off the scramble, it will be a lift to a defense that has traditionally stopped the run well. Watch for any shake-ups in the alignment or players used, and see if Palko audibles to attack any freshmen in the game, or to use the height advantage over Rivers on a deep ball. If West Virginia can respond to those moves and negate as many as possible, it can limit the Pitt offense even with the secondary still settling late in the season.
Injury update: Fullback Owen Schmitt (low ankle sprain) did not practice Monday. He went through treatments and jogged a bit. He will not play 60-70 snaps, Rodriguez said, but could be in on key situations. John Holmes (ankle) practiced and was fine.
*WVU will use the longest legal cleat (1/2 inch) allowed by the NCAA. It will not be allowed in Heinz Field until warm-ups, so it will feel out the surface then.