Mountaineers defense asserts itself

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Defensive captains Will Clarke and Shaq Rowell brought a message back to the huddle after West Virginia's 37-0 defeat to Maryland: The week is over; the season is not.

Four weeks in, the redshirt senior defensive linemen have emerged as leading playmakers and spokesmen for the surprising Mountaineers defense that has become the backbone of the team.

It's a striking role reversal from a year ago, when the offense, averaging 39.5 points per game, was asked to win games with score after score because the defense allowed 38.1. Today, the defense checks in at 19.3 points per game, and the offense at a flat 18.

"I know how the offense felt now," Rowell said, shaking his head. "It's not fun, to be honest. We can't point fingers at anybody because we remember last year -- dang, they were over there just wondering what was wrong with the defense."

West Virginia (2-2, 0-1 Big 12) was shut out on Saturday for the first time since a 35-0 loss to Virginia Tech on Oct. 5, 2011.

"We knew it was going to be a role reversal," coach Dana Holgorsen said. "If we want to win, the defense has to set up scores or make plays, that's just the situation we are in until the offense comes along which, eventually, it will."

That's added pressure on the defense, sure, but it's pressure Clarke, a 6-foot-7, 273-pount defensive end, and Rowell, a burly nose tackle, relish.

At 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, Rowell is a space eater and a lynchpin in defensive coordinator Keith Patterson's 3-4 system. The more blockers Rowell can occupy, the easier it is to dive into the backfield with edge rushers.

"Shaq has been pretty rock-solid all year," Patterson said. "He's been that anchor in the middle. For a kid that size, he's moved around and played extremely tough and physical."

Clarke, a Pittsburgh native and Allderdice High School alum, had two sacks against Maryland to bring his team-leading total to three.

"Will Clarke played the best he's ever played on Saturday," Holgorsen said, and Patterson offered the same praise.

What has eaten Clarke up all week, though, are the three would-be sacks he said he left on the field. One was a near-safety of Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown that would have finally put some points on the board.

"That still runs in my head to this day," Clarke said. "That was more of my focus: not the ones I made, I kept thinking about the ones that I missed."

It's an attitude that has worked its way into the defensive meeting room and into the huddle, an attitude of pride, accountability and expectations.

Patterson calls it "raising the standard." Every defensive highlight -- a sack, a strip, an interception -- is answered the same way: do it again, and do one better.

"That's what happens in track and field," Patterson said. "When you high jump, if you make it, big deal, it goes two inches higher. That's the analogy I use with our players. Once you accomplish this, well guess what, I'm going to move it up two more inches. I'm going to move the standard on you.

"It's never going to be good enough. If we keep moving that standard in two-inch increments, at the end of the season you look back and you're so much better."

West Virginia held Maryland to season-low totals in nearly every offensive category, and the defense nearly pitched a second-half shutout, save for a touchdown drive with four minutes remaining.

"At halftime, we had two choices to make," Clarke said, "go out there and let what happened in the first half keep happening or go out there and try to make a change."

Patterson applauded the defense and its captains for their resilient, no-quit attitude even as they crouched into their stances for the 71st and 72nd defensive snaps of the afternoon.

"Shaq and Will both were tremendous leaders for us when the score got lopsided," Patterson said.

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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