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September 17, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN-WVU defense shows signs of improvement

MORGANTOWN — In the midst of this non-stop fawning over the firm of Smith, Bailey, Austin and Co., we’re off on a diversion of sorts this morning, coming a day after it was discovered that West Virginia University is fielding a defensive unit as well as an offense this season.

This discovery was made in the aftermath of a 42-12 victory over a James Madison team that has more fight than talent.

“It wasn’t as good a game as we can play, certainly, but we’re getting closer,” linebacker Doug Rigg said. “You can see us tipping balls and getting to the quarterback and making tackles. It’s better.”

Two weeks after a rather ordinary Marshall team registered 545 yards and 34 points against a newly minted 3-4 defense that was constructed to replace what had been a popular and successful 3-3-5 defense, the defense allowed only one touchdown, that late in the game after the regulars had long since exited.

And if it did give up 188 rushing yards to a team playing without its star player, a running back, it did cut the passing yardage allowed from 413 to 112 yards while registering four sacks and obtaining one rather important interception.

If there was any warning sign to heed, it came in the fact that to do this the Mountaineers had to twice pull off goal-line stands, magical moments in any game, to be sure, but stands that you suspect might not have been accomplished had JMU’s offense been fully loaded with its top running back, Dae’Quan Scott, who was a runner with a nose for the end zone.

That, though, is to see the glass as half full at a time when the Mountaineers’ thirst for defensive success had been quenched.

It is pure folly to scoff at the goal-line stands, for they were important in that JMU was threatening to work its way back into a game that had seemed gone, the stands deflating the spirit of the Dukes while inflating the ego of the Mountaineers.

“Any time you have a goal-line stand, it’s like a blocked punt ... a huge momentum changer,” defensive coordinator Joe DeForest noted. “It showed they are growing up; they are growing up in their second game. You can build off that, say, ‘Look, you can do it. You’ve done it before. We know we can stop them; let’s get after it.’”

Any coach will tell you that you can play only the players in uniform on the other side, and that he certainly would not subtract any points because of Scott’s absence.

The first stand resulted in a stop on four downs, and that the offense gave up a safety coming out of it did nothing to lessen the impact of showing JMU that it could not bang the ball into the end zone.

The second stand showed they could not pass it in, either, as a third-down pass was tipped and wound up a diving interception by Tyler Anderson, the former Morgantown High standout, his first career interception.

The tip was key, DeForest would say.

“We tried to affect the ball. We talked about it all day,” he said. “We tried to get it out of their hands, but they did a good job of protecting it. We had the interception in the end zone, which is nice, and we dropped an interception late in the game.

“I’d like more turnovers, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.”

This group has stated from the beginning that its ultimate goal was to turn the ball over at least three times in each game. That they have but three turnovers in two games says there is work there.

But it’s coming, in part because the pressure on the quarterback increased greatly from Marshall to James Madison.

There were four sacks of quarterback Justin Thorpe on Saturday, and DeForest notes, “We could have had more. We let them get out of the pocket. We pressured him a bunch today. He’s tremendously elusive. That’s where we have to work on our blitz gap lanes and making sure everyone is in the right lane when they do blitz. We have to make sure it’s not just a massive exodus.”

Part of the reason there weren’t more turnovers or sacks was the tackling, which still is a long way from effective.

“I still think we missed too many tackles, but they were one of nine on third down at halftime, and that was a tremendous improvement,” DeForest noted.

So there you have it, improvement on the defensive side of the ball ... as boring as that may be.

We now return you to Smith, Bailey, Austin and Co. Let the fawning continue.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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