Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said this week that West Virginia's coaching staff knew "we had our work cut out for us" on defense earlier this season.
Nine games into the season, the defense and its lack of progress is increasingly under fire -- despite gaffes on offense and special teams contributing to two losses.
Still, Casteel said he believes the defense can play harder as the Mountaineers' (6-3, 2-2 Big East) head to Cincinnati for a must-win Saturday.
"I think if you talk to the kids, we can execute. Saturday, [Louisville] goes 50, 60 yards with a basic football play, our kid doesn't have his head in the right seam, and it goes for 50 yards," Casteel said. "You have to execute, do those things and play with effort. You do those things you give yourself a chance."
West Virginia had to replace seven starters in Casteel's 3-3-5 scheme, but the defense has not shown consistent improvement.
"We don't get caught up in quite the hype in some of the things that go on. We know what we see. We knew we had our work cut out for us," he said.
To be fair, field position hasn't exactly been stellar with punting issues and turnovers. But the Mountaineers have the worst-ranked scoring defense in the Big East, surrendering 27.4 points a game. West Virginia's opponents have converted on third down 38 percent of the time, 48 percent in the past three games.
The Mountaineers have trouble getting to the quarterback, and they rank last in the conference in sacks (14). Despite a season-high nine tackles for loss against Louisville, those problems were never more clear than in a seven-minute, fourth-quarter drive by Louisville that ended with a score that gave the Cardinals the win. That drive included two third-down conversions and one fourth-down conversion.
"We had some opportunities on third down. Didn't get a guy on the ground. Didn't make a play. That's what happens. You get beat," Casteel said. "You've got to make plays when you get opportunities. We didn't do it. To Louisville's credit, they did make plays."
One other factor seems to contribute to the defense's woes.
West Virginia's quick-strike tempo offense keeps the defense on the field more than traditional offenses do. In time of possession, West Virginia ranks 113th in Division I-A, trailing its opponents by more than four minutes: 31:21 to 27:02.
For a team that knew it was young and inexperienced and had some depth problems on defense, it has to be a factor.
"Well I think probably [when] you sit down and analyze those [things], it's definitely a different way of playing the game, but you're still held to the same standard," he said. "Your job is to go out and play defense whether you're out quicker, or they go out on a five-, six-minute drive. Bottom line is when your number's called to go out and play defense, you got to go play defense and get a stop."
Casteel said his players felt bad after the loss against Louisville, and he hopes they can push through Saturday against 23rd-ranked Cincinnati.
"The thing is," Casteel said, "we just haven't been able to ... we haven't gotten in sync throughout the whole year. We play well in spurts, then turn around and don't play well."
Jenn Menendez: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1959.