The No. 9 Mountaineers (5-1) are tied with Maryland for fifth in the NCAA at 4.3 penalties per game. The 26 penalties for 226 yards, 38.0 on average, are nearly 20 yards less on average per game than that of foes. That equates to almost two extra first downs in a game, and is actually better than the plays themselves, as the lack of penalties also cuts down on the chances of plays being cancelled or regulated to shorter – or negative – yardage.
Reasons vary from better discipline and execution to finer physical conditioning. Out of position players are often forced to hold to avoid major hits on quarterbacks, and offensive linemen lacking proper footwork and hand placement will occasionally grab a fist of jersey to haul down an opponent. On defense, the added team speed is also a factor. Even if ball carriers or wideouts break into the open field, West Virginia can utilize its speed to slow the play, as opposed to having to grab a facemask or recover late within coverage to draw pass interference. Part of it also might be maturation of the players, as West Virginia's rising classes continually produce bigger numbers after the Mountaineers had fewer players in some previous classes. That won't continue, obviously, as scholarship limits are at 85. But it's a trend worth noting over the last two seasons.
"We were getting five or six personal fouls every game," cornerback Larry Williams said. "You should not get five or six personal fouls in a season. We just weren't smart. I think we have that down. We came together as a defense and we are trying to make a statement. Guys were screwing up. You look at the penalties, it was embarrassing. It was about taking yourself and growing up and maturing as a man. A lot of guys grew up."
The Mountaineers were flagged just once, for 11 yards, in the loss to South Florida, so it is not as though WVU beat itself via penalty in that game. The Bulls had five penalties totaling 40 yards. The most penalized game thus far was West Virginia's eight flags for 65 yards in the 55-14 win at Syracuse on Oct. 6. The Orange were called for six infractions totaling 55 yards. WVU matched its six penalty mark two other times, against Western Michigan in the opener – something expected in the first game – and at Maryland, though neither yardage total matched the 55 yards in the Carrier Dome. West Virginia had two penalties for 30 yards at Marshall and three for 35 versus East Carolina. Western Michigan drew the most penalties and yardage of any foe, being called for 15 infractions for a whopping 117 yards, giving the Mountaineers a plus-52 yard advantage in penalties alone.
"It's the discipline factor," fullback Owen Schmitt said. "The coaches and players are working together. I think we are in better shape. Coach Rod always says that why we had that holding penalty is because you are lazy. I think we in better shape."
Especially surprising has been the lack of penalties along the offensive line. The unit lost two starters and had to replace Rimington Award winner Dan Mozes at center and guard Jeremy Sheffey, an All-Big East selection. Veteran tackle Ryan Stanchek said that part of the success can be attributed to first-year assistant Greg Frey – who replaced Rick Trickett, now coaching the most penalized team in the nation in Florida State – and an occasional failure by the officiating crew.
"I think as an offensive line, a lot of that has to be attributed to coach Frey getting us in position for our blocks," Stanchek said. "We just have to focus on playing smarter. Discipline is a big key to that. We have focused on playing smart. That, and a couple lucky calls. The officials missed one or two."
"Those holes, those are two huge players," Schmitt said. "It's a big deal. The guys who are in there are doing their best to fill them. They are not looking to be the first Dan Mozes and Jeremy Sheffey. They are just being the next Mike Dent and Derek Hayes or whatever."
Iowa State is the least penalized team in the nation with 23 for 200 yards in seven games. With an 1-6 record, it's obvious that doesn't directly equate to success. But unbeaten Kansas (6-0) and Penn State (5-2), Navy (4-2) and Maryland (4-2) and West Virginia (5-1) round out the top five. The latter five combine for a 24-7 record, which is an indicator that the vast majority of good teams simply don't make many miscues. The lone other team in the top 10 in fewest penalties with a losing record is Army, well-known as a disciplined team that simply lacks the overall talent of its foes.
The most surprising stat is that the closest Big East team to WVU is Syracuse, which is tied for 74th with 49 penalties in seven games, six of which resulted in losses. That's a dismal mark for the Big East, which has all but one of its teams in the bottom half of the NCAA and three – Rutgers, Louisville and Cincinnati – ranked 95th or worse. UC is next to last with an average of 9.43 per game, better than only FSU's 10.0 per game average. Mountaineer foes have totaled 42 penalties for 343 yards for the average of 57.2 yards per game.
"It comes down to guys knowing what their role is, accepting their role and going out and executing it," linebacker Marc Magro said. "You have to have a trust and know your (teammate) will be there."