By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
A year ago there was no defense for the West Virginia University defense.
It had more holes than a pound of Swiss cheese, was hard as a toasted marshmallow and as threatening as a puffy white cloud.
A coaching change, some personnel changes and an attitude change has put teeth into what was a toothless tiger. Runs that broke for 20 yards a year ago now may not get to the line of scrimmage; passes that went for touchdowns are now intercepted or batted away, if they get off at all before a furious pass rush downs the quarterback.
Plays that couldn’t be made a year ago are now routine.
West Virginia is playing West Virginia football again.
There is now a price to pay for challenging this defense, be it safeties Darwin Cook or Karl Joseph rattling your teeth, freshmen Marvin Gross or Daryl Worley making plays a freshman can’t make, junior college transfers Dontrill Hyman or Brandon Golson getting in the passer’s face or veterans Shaq Rowell or Will Clarke doing things they didn’t even dream of doing a season ago.
They aren’t tackling people. They are pounding them.
“That’s the goal. People are putting in the film this year, and they see we’re not playing around,” said Rowell, the vocal nose tackle. “We’re playing for keeps. We are trying to put you out of the game. We’re trying to attack and react to everything they do.
“We figure the harder we hit them, they’re going to watch that film and crunch up a little every time they catch that ball.”
Toughness … that’s what they are after.
“The acronym that we’ve been rallying around since January has been T.E.A.M.,” Keith Patterson, the defensive coordinator, explained. “When you think about West Virginia and the people that have played before, and the teams that have come, the one thing that you can say is that they were tough.
“Our kids today show not only physical toughness, but mental toughness. I think it showed up in the second half of the Maryland game. Someone told me that even though we were down 30 points, we were playing like it was the second half of the Super Bowl. That toughness is something we’ve harped on since January. We are going to play with a physical and mental toughness.”
Because of it they are making plays you would never expect to see. They are playing a game of domination and intimidation and are so driven that they are doing the near impossible and thinking of it as the routine.
Take a play Rowell made against Oklahoma State, a 300-plus-pound nose tackle making a play 22 yards downfield.
“It’s just a matter of wanting it,” Rowell said. “This year’s team wants it. It wasn’t something I was thinking about. I was just reacting to the play.
“I didn’t realize what I did until the game was over and I watched the film. It was a team play. I’m not joking with you, just a routine play.”
Routine? Patterson didn’t think so.
“I had brought pressure off the edge and Shaq was actually moving away from where the ball was going. He put his foot in the ground and ran maybe 20 yards down the field and makes the play,” Patterson explained.
“But it’s like I said all year long. Shaq has become a vocal leader, an inspirational leader. He’s playing a whole different level than a year ago.”
And so are so many others.
Take Worley and Gross.
“Daryl Worley. He plays with a maturity level you just don’t see at that level. He plays with a confidence, almost a swagger that you just don’t see among freshmen,” Patterson said. “Marvin (Gross), he brings a lot of raw, natural pass rushing ability. We stood him up at the 3-technique on Saturday against Oklahoma State and he gets a QB sack and has a TFL (tackle for loss).
“He just has a knack for getting to the quarterback. With an off-season, the older he gets the better he is going to get.”
Gross came out of nowhere with no hype out of camp.
“It’s one of those deals don’t judge a book by its cover,” Patterson said. “When I first looked at him I thought he was here to play basketball. He was 185 pounds, and I’m thinking there is no way that kid can play. I just assumed he would redshirt.
“Then we kind of get dinged up one day in camp and throw him out there and he looks like a 185-pound Lawrence Taylor. We just went, ‘Geez, maybe we ought to look at him a little closer before we make a decision.’”
And here he is now while Hyman and Golson are using strength to change games.
“Golson (a linebacker) has the physical strength of a defensive lineman. He’s caused five fumbles already this year. He’s so strong.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.