West Virginia football defense steps out from big shadow
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In September, West Virginia appeared to be a football team that would be carried by its offense.
There were eye-popping passing-yardage statistics, spectacular plays and a scoreboard constantly lighting up under first-year coach Dana Holgorsen.
Few could have predicted that the defense would have to save the day down the stretch.
Think of Najee Goode's forced fumble at South Florida, the 10 sacks against Pitt, or the defensive touchdown at Cincinnati.
In the team's last three regular-season games -- all won by slim margins -- the defense came through in critical moments to get the Mountaineers into the Orange Bowl.
"Our confidence just kept building throughout the whole season," defensive tackle Julian Miller said. "It propelled our defense to play more as a whole. It was better for us to have that happen later in the season. You want to get better as opposed to going down. We continued to peak later in the season."
Make no mistake, this is still a defense with flaws -- one that misses tackles, mostly struggles to get sacks, and likely will not have an easy time with Clemson's offense at the Orange Bowl.
The Mountaineers finished the regular season No. 51 nationally in rushing defense (140.75 yards a game), No. 32 in pass defense (199.58) and are No. 27 in total defense, allowing 340.33 yards.
They rank No. 63 in scoring defense (23.65) and spend a lot of time on the field, as evidenced by the teams' ranking a low No. 111 in time of possession( 27 minutes, 37 seconds per game).
But looking past statistics, the defense did what was necessary.
"I think we played well in spurts throughout the year. Things get overlooked," defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said. "Then, we played bad at times. I think they've become a little bit more consistent, and that's really been the big difference."
The way defensive end Bruce Irvin put it, the Mountaineers' late-season chemistry made a difference.
Irvin pointed out last week that quarterback Geno Smith and receiver Stedman Bailey often join the defense on the field in timeouts for encouragement.
"Going into the game, it's not a guarantee the offense is going to put up 40-something points," Irvin said. "You got to go in there, bust your [butt], and have your team's back. If Geno throws a pick or a pick-6, you can't get down on him. I think our defense has done well with that.
"Last year, I would say, around this time, if situations happened, the way our team was, we got into it. This year, guys were doing a good job putting each other together and not letting the team fall [apart]."
Miller, one of four seniors in the starting defense, said the team lacked an identity in September, and it took time to learn what they could do.
"In the beginning of the year, we didn't know what type of defense we were.," Miller said. "I'd say the whole season we haven't done as well against the run as we probably should have. But we also picked it up in other aspects."
NOTES -- West Virginia officials do not expect cornerback Brodrick Jenkins to have NCAA eligibility issues after his name appeared on a promotional flyer for a Christmas party at a nightclub in Fort Myers, Fla. The compliance department is handling the situation, said a WVU official. ... As of Friday West Virginia had surpassed 7,400 in ticket sales for the Orange Bowl. The team's allotment is 17,500.
First Published December 17, 2011 12:00 am