South Florida owes its success to defense guru

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- He is a grandfatherly gent, a Bear Bryant stunt double, with a road map of a face. Look closely, and you could trace the hard mileage of his 41-year coaching journey: high school, North Alabama. East Tennessee State, Richmond, Memphis State, Lamar, the U.S. Football League Arizona Wranglers, Florida State, South Carolina to, finally, a football program that began in a trailer, South Florida.

It is at South Florida, that back-to-back conqueror of West Virginia, where he burnished the reputation he carries tomorrow into Mountaineer Field.

Meet Wally Burnham, spoiler of the spread offense, villain to West Virginia's vaunted attack, Dalai Lama to defensive minds abroad seeking to quash zone reads, options and the like.

If nothing else, that's how West Virginia coach Bill Stewart makes him sound.

Shoot, the way Burnham gets deified around these parts, these Mountaineers (7-4, 4-2 Big East) might be winners of 29 consecutive games or something if this assistant head coach and defensive coordinator never came along.

"The guy who started it all was Wally Burnham," Stewart was saying earlier this week, "and we haven't had any answers for two years. Wally started this off, doggone him.

"Next thing you know, East Carolina picked up on it [this past September]. Next thing you know, Cincinnati picked up on it [last month]. Next thing you know, Pitt picked up on it [last December and last week]."

Right there you have it: All six West Virginia losses since Nov. 2, 2006, can be traced back to, blamed on, ascribed to Burnham.

True, Stewart isn't the only one bestowing defensive brilliance upon Burnham, who doesn't quite resemble a miracle worker nowadays with South Florida (7-4, 2-4) limping into Morgantown losers of four of its past six games after a 5-0 start and No. 10 ranking.

Last fall, after the Bulls followed a 24-19 road upset in 2006 with a 21-13 home victory, wrote:

"If West Virginia's offense makes most defensive coordinators violently sick, Burnham has clearly found his own personal antidote."

This past spring, after former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez moved to Michigan, rival Ohio State sent an assistant coach to learn at Burnham's feet. Same for Minnesota.

"From what I understand, everyone in America has tried to get in and visit those guys," Stewart said of Burnham, whose boss, head coach Jim Leavitt, makes assistants off limits to media interviews. "Wally's a great coach. He's sharp, cagey. They've stuffed us for two years. Just flat stuffed us."

"Coach Burnham knows what he's doing," added Bulls linebacker Tyrone McKenzie, who transferred from Michigan State to Iowa State to back home.

"He's a great asset to us. He's like a father figure to all the players."

Burnham's South Florida defenders respect him so much that they dedicated their 2006 victory in Mountaineer Field to Burnham, who spent much of that week with his ailing mother.

A month later, when he exited before the PapaJohn' Bowl to attend Cora Burnham's funeral, they saved him a game ball from their 24-7 defeat of East Carolina.

The basic Burnham Plan? It's simple, but not always easy to duplicate.

First, lock your cornerbacks onto two spread receivers, and it helps to have a pair of NFL-caliber cornerbacks. If it's a run, those corners must quickly shed the receivers' blocks and make plays. If it's a rare pass, those corners must win one-on-one battles.

Meantime, the other nine defenders crowd the line -- oh, maybe a safety stays in the rear or covers a slotback -- and they all flow with the zone blockers, clogging the rush lanes.

Paul Rhoads, who beat West Virginia last season as Pitt's defensive coordinator but lost this season as Auburn's, noted how South Florida struck first in its past two victories, stunning West Virginia.

Above all, he added: "The key is still tackling. Pitt only missed three tackles against them Friday from what I understand."

Oh, and one last thing: Rhoads and Pitt studied South Florida tapes and added a few wrinkles of their own, which other teams since learned and imitated as well.

It's a copycat football world, doggone it.

The Bulls' McKenzie tossed in a little-known factoid from ... the Burnham Meal Plan?

"When you're playing West Virginia," McKenzie said, "you better cut down on a meal or two that week, because they'll run."

Funny, but Stewart said the recipe for success against such a defense is balance: "We've had pretty good coaches here, and we've not been able to run the ball [on that defense], to my knowledge. You have to throw the football."

Chuck Finder can be reached at .


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