Improvement. That's the word of the week for defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. After his charges gave up 21 points and nearly 400 total yards in the season-opening win against I-AA foe Villanova, Casteel is hoping to see marked improvement from week one to week two. And with a credible opponent – East Carolina – awaiting the Mountaineers on their first road trip of the season, defensive improvement could end up being the difference between win number two and the season's first loss.
The most discouraging defensive characteristic this past Saturday was a lack of ability to consistently get off the field on third down. The Wildcats converted eight of their 14 third-down opportunities against West Virginia. While there is no magic bullet that can solve each and every one of the defense's third-down woes, the objective for this week is simple.
"We've got to get off the field. I mean, that's the bottom line," Casteel said bluntly. "We've got to play better. We've got to execute. We have to do some things. We left some guys uncovered in situations where really they hadn't done a whole lot of that in practice. They just have to execute. I think their heart rate got going, especially early in the game. They didn't do some things that they had to do."
Against the Pirates, the same types of mistakes could harm the Mountaineers even more. In their opening-weekend upset of Virginia Tech, ECU was seven of 13 on third down. Perhaps the starting point for slowing down East Carolina's offense will be containing the dual-threat abilities of senior quarterback Patrick Pinkney.
Pinkney was nothing short of brilliant against Bud Foster's Virginia Tech defense, completing 19-23 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown against zero interceptions. Pinkney's pass efficiency rating of 174.02 places him 20th amongst NCAA I-A quarterbacks after the season's first week, one place ahead of WVU's Patrick White.
Last season against the Mountaineers, Pinkney struggled mightily in Morgantown, finishing with just 43 yards passing in the 48-7 drubbing. One year later, though, the ECU signal-caller is playing the best football of his career, and is looking to add a second major upset in as many weeks to his impressive credentials.
"He was just absolutely phenomenal the other day against Virginia Tech," Casteel said. "He's so much more poised in the pocket. When he came here, he was still such a young player. Now, you can see his confidence when he sets his feet to throw. He's got a strong arm. He's very illusive, and he's a great athlete. They've got some kids that can catch the ball and run. He'll be a problem."
While Pinkney and the Pirates certainly present a number of challenges this weekend, the Mountaineers must worry as much about West Virginia as they will about East Carolina. For the defense, eliminating its own mistakes will ultimately prove to be more crucial to the team's success.
Unfortunately, for a youth-filled defense such as West Virginia's, there is no set time to gel. It goes without saying that the sooner West Virginia's defense comes together, the better off the team as a whole will be.
"If it was that easy, everybody would be doing it," Casteel said. "It's just time and more reps. They're going to get a huge test going down and playing in front of a crowd that's going against them next week. That's going to be an experience for them. Most of those kids have been in stadiums where it's loud and all that, but they haven't had to go in and execute. So, you know we're looking forward to seeing how they do down there. That's a great atmosphere down at East Carolina.
"When you're playing young kids, they just have to grow. The more they play, the better they'll get."