Inspired defense survives meltdown
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For one half on Saturday, West Virginia's defense took a step backwards on the snow-covered turf in Piscataway, N.J.
An interception was dropped in the end zone, and Rutgers scored one play later. Two pass interference penalties on another drive led to another score by the Scarlet Knights.
It all added up to 31 first half points yielded to an offense that hadn't scored that many in an opening half all year.
It all turned around in the second half.
Though it wasn't perfect, it was a show of effort that was critically needed, said Mountaineers defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. West Virginia, trailing 31-21 at the half, won 41-31, its defense refusing to yielding a score in the third and fourth quarters.
"I thought our kids did a nice job responding after getting punched in the head a few times," Casteel said. "We started making plays in the second half. They are capable. We're not making any progress when you've got to fight your way out of a 31-point half, though. We need to get better. That's a little bit frustrating.
"My hat's off to the kids to hang in there and not throw in the towel. That's hard to do. You've got to give them credit for that."
Defensive tackle Julian Miller said he and his teammates heard an inspirational speech at halftime from Brantwon Bowser, a backup corner and a senior leader of the team.
"He said you go out there and you fight for your brother," Miller said. "As the season goes on, we're getting closer and closer, like brothers, teammates."
Rutgers couldn't get into the red zone in the second half and the one time they did, defensive back Darwin Cook made a key tackle in the end zone on a fake field goal, slamming into receiver Brandon Colemen to break up the pass.
"That was a big play obviously," Casteel said. "I think that was one of the things that helped keep our guys going too. I think it was a 31-28 game at that point. It was big, gave our kids some life."
West Virginia scored the eventual game-winning touchdown on the next drive with a 1-yard run by quarterback Geno Smith.
From there Miller recovered a fumble by Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova, hanging onto the ball in a wild scrum with less than 5 minutes to play.
As he wrestled to cover the ball, defensive end Bruce Irvin jumped on top of him, yelling "I got you man, I got you man," he said. "Rutgers guys scraping and scrapping for it at the bottom, a lot of stuff was going on. My main focus was just holding onto the ball."
It was his second of the night, his first coming early in the second quarter. Both were, he said, not without adventure.
"The first one was me and [defensive back] Pat Miller. I was telling him 'I got it, I got it.' He was like 'Who is this? Who is this?' I said 'It's me! It's me! It's Julian.' He was like, 'Alright, alright' and stopped fighting me for it."
Ultimately, said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, the win came down to playing harder in the second half.
"I was proud of how we went out and on all three sides of the ball we played harder than they did," he said. "Not to take anything away from Rutgers ...We felt like we went out there and outplayed them in the second half. It was a great team win."
NOTES -- Some players changed from molded cleats to screw-ins at halftime to try and get better footing in the sloppy conditions. ... The Mountaineers rose to No. 21 in the USA Today coaches poll with the win, and No. 24 in the Associated Press media poll. ... The victory ran West Virginia's winning streak against Rutgers to 17, dating to 1994.
First Published October 31, 2011 12:00 am