Auburn did have some success on the ground, totaling 149 yards against the Mountaineer defense. However, the bulk of those yards came on outside runs, and on a couple of broken pass play scrambles by quarterback Kodi Burns. But when the Tigers loaded up in the I-formation to run the isolation play, and tried to thump West Virginia into submission, WVU held firm, especially after the Tigers' opening drive that spanned 20 plays. Even then, however, WVU wasn't getting gashed inside. Auburn got three or four yards per carry – just enough to eke out a first down. After that, however, West Virginia clamped down even tighter, and yielded just 73 yards rushing over the final three quarters.
Two of the chief reasons for WVU's success? You guessed it – the men in the middle. Nose tackle Chris Neild and middle linebacker Anthony Leonard, who seems to get bigger and more imposing each time out, were stalwarts against Auburn's offensive front. It seemed as is every time Auburn tried to run inside, the phrase "Leonard on the tackle" was heard, and Neild was seen rising from the pile he helped create. Leonard was credited with a game high 16 tackles and a forced fumble, while Neild was in on eight – an astounding total for someone on the nose. It showed that not only was the burly sophomore holding his ground, but was defeating blocks and getting in on hits. When an interior defensive lineman does that, a defense has a chance to be dominant – and that's exactly what the Mountaineers were.
Stats, of course, tell only part of the story. Neild might have played just as well but gotten only three tackles, if he executed his defensive assignment. Many times, that is the straightforward, if not simple task, of holding his ground against double teams and jamming up the gaps between the center and guard. He has been steadily improving in that area, and against Auburn had a dream game for a defensive lineman.
In the end, WVU shut down the outside as well, holding the Tigers to just 3.3 yards per rush. And when you add in the fact that 20 yards of Burns' rushing totals came on the final two drives, when Auburn had clearly folded its tent, the picture of a Mountaineer defense that achieved its primary goal – stopping the run – was achieved.
"We knew that we were going to get a heavy dose of the run game, and as a whole I think the defense did pretty good," Neild said. "We had some kinks in the first quarter, but I think it was a good job overall. They were running the ball a lot, and we expected it, but their QB was elusive too. We did a good job of containing him in the second half.
What Neild wasn't able to stop on his own, Leonard cleaned up behind him.
"We figured they would stay true to running the game," he echoed. "But being down "17-3 was just another trial. That's character right there; the way we came back. "Down 17-3, backs against the wall, but like Coach Stew said, we have to control what we do. I thought we did that. I give us an A+ there."
Faced with that deficit, WVU rallied to score to cut the deficit to seven. Then the run defense went to work. Auburn eked out one first down on three runs, but their remaining three runs on their ensuing drive went for just a total of three yards. And with momentum swinging WVU's way, the Tigers' first drive of the third quarter went like this: Brad Lester no gain (tackle by Leonard), Brad Lester one yard (tackle by Leonard and Neild), incompletion, punt. Following a WVU field goal, it was Kodi Burns for a two-yard loss (tackle Chris Neild), Ben Tate loss of one, incompletion, punt. At that point, WVU seized control and never let go.
For his part, Leonard didn't know that he was racking up monster tackle totals, including 11 in the first half.
"That I didn't know," he said when informed of the stat, noting that he's not really aware of how many plays he's in on. "My goal is to first of all do my assignment, then get to the ball. That's what I did today. And we just executed."
WVU's defense also got boosts from two big stands. The first was the goal line stand in the first quarter, on which they held the Tigers to a field goal. The second was the three and out following Auburn's recovery on an onside kick while leading 17-3. A score there could have really buried the Mountaineers deep.
"That goal line stand was real big," Leonard said. "Just doing that gave us some confidence. It showed that just because they were from the SEC, they weren't going to bully us."
Neild opted for the stop after the onside kick, noting that it was something of a momentum changer. He and his teammates knew that if they just got the ball back to the offense, which was showing life despite two early turnovers, that WVU could get back in the game. That drive, and those that followed, played out just as the defense planned, and one of the big reasons was that interior strength.
Was there a secret to that success? Leonard summed it up best.
"Did we make a statement tonight? I think the big thing as I look at is was character. We were facing adversity. When you lose momentum, you have to get it back. We just played our butts off."