Defense leads West Virginia to 17-10 win at Louisville


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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Here is the truest measure of how good West Virginia's defense was against Louisville, the Big East Conference's top rushing team, Saturday: Chris Philpott was the Cardinals' leading rusher.

He's a punter.

Much has been made about West Virginia's defense; how it bullies, batters and bruises the opposition and, for the most part, grants the often-sporadic Mountaineers offense a chance to win games.

That was the formula again as West Virginia squeezed out a 17-10 victory against Louisville (5-6, 2-4) at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.

With the victory -- coupled with Pitt's win Saturday at South Florida -- the Backyard Brawl remains important to both teams as the Mountaineers (7-3, 3-2) and Panthers (6-4, 4-1) are still alive to receive the Big East Conference's BCS Bowl bid.

About those rushing numbers for Louisville: Philpott ran a fake punt in the second quarter that went for 21 yards.

The Cardinals' next-leading rusher was Jeremy Wright, who carried 13 times for 20 yards as all Louisville could muster was 26 yards on the ground.

And to do that, they had to overcome plays in which they were thrown for a total of 48 yards in losses.

Overall, the Cardinals accumulated 171 total yards on a day when top tailback Bilal Powell battled illness and had just four touches.

There are plenty more exceptional numbers.

West Virginia also held the Cardinals to two third-down conversions in 13 tries on the heels of a performance last week when the Mountaineers stopped all 12 of Cincinnati's third-down attempts.

Louisville's touchdown Saturday was a defensive score, so West Virginia's defense yielded just a field goal.

The numbers for this top-five nationally ranked defense -- which some consider to be the most dazzling in West Virginia's history -- have been stunning all season.

So, what does coordinator Jeff Casteel think about when he glimpses all the numbers?

From his vantage, he doesn't have much time for such retrospection.

"From where you stand and where we stand is a completely different way of thinking," Casteel said to the media.

"We are trying to go out and practice well. We are trying to understand what the opponent likes to do in certain situations.

"At the end of the year, when the season is over [that can be discussed], but we are not into that mode yet."

Such a mentality has rubbed off on players such as safety Robert Sands, one of the leaders in the back end of the West Virginia defense that forced Louisville into eight punts and 12 of 24 passing.

"We will be able to do that at the end of the year," Sands said of pondering all that has been accomplished.

"We don't think about that right now.

"We've realized what we've done, but we try to keep that in the back of our minds."

In the front of Louisville's minds against West Virginia was how the Cardinals were, somehow, going to score some more points after they took a 3-0 lead in the first quarter on a 43-yard field goal from Philpott.

Those points were all the Cardinals' offense would generate, and that lead was erased when Noel Devine scored on a run from 2 yards to bounce the Mountaineers into a 7-3 lead later in the first quarter.

Early in the second quarter, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith was hit near his goal line by Louisville's Rodney Gnat. Smith fumbled the ball into the end zone, and Daniel Brown jumped on it to give the Cardinals a 10-7 lead.

Ryan Clarke's 2-yard run gave the Mountaineers a 14-10 lead in the second quarter and Tyler Bitancurt tacked on a field goal in the third to propel the Mountaineers to the final 17-10 advantage.

Louisville had one last shot after blocking a field goal with less than three minutes remaining, but Cardinals quarterback Justin Burke threw an interception to West Virginia's Keith Tandy, icing it.

Sure, it wasn't pretty, as West Virginia's offense gained just 261 yards, its second-lowest total of the year -- but Mountaineers coach Bill Stewart remains fiercely loyal to his "a-win-is-a-win-is-a-win" stance.

"For offensive enthusiasts, this is probably not what you came here to see," he said. "But it was a fine football game, a victory."


NOTE -- West Virginia senior receiver Jock Sanders extended his consecutive games streak with at least one reception to 38, third in Big East Conference history and second all time for West Virginia. He also has 191 career receptions, tying him for first place in school history with David Saunders, who played for the Mountaineers from 1995-98.


Colin Dunlap: cdunlap@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1459.


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