By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Sometimes there’s just no clever way to get into a column, and this is one of those times.
I know because I found out the hard way. If we were still in the days when we were banging out columns on an Underwood portable, there would be a waist-high pile of crumpled up papers where an angle was tried and rejected, tossed off into the corner of the room, followed by another and another.
See, sometimes you can be cute and clever, have an anecdote that fits perfectly or a quote upon which a column can be built.
This time there is none of that. See, we’re writing about the way this West Virginia University defense has fallen so short of projections in sacks and turnovers.
You ask defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel about it, and this man who last year was one of the hottest assistant coach properties in football has no answer for it.
“I wish I did,” he said. “If it was just coaching, I’d say, ‘Guys, let’s go get a fumble.’ But it isn’t that.”
It has bordered upon the absurd, the way this defense has failed to come up with big plays, game-turning plays.
A year ago, while ranking third in the nation in scoring defense and total defense, it led the Big East in interceptions with 17. It has three in four games this year. Last year it was second in the nation in sacks. It has one this year for minus-7 yards.
As for fumble recoveries, well, last year’s team wasn’t very good at that, either, getting just 11, but this year they have not recovered any of the opponents’ six fumbles.
It is reaching a frustrating point, topped off in the LSU game, a game where a turnover may have gotten WVU some field position at a time when it was crucial.
“Second or third play, we had an opportunity on a tipped ball with two or three guys who couldn’t get it,” Casteel said.
One was Keith Tandy, who a year ago got to every tipped ball, five of his six interceptions coming on tips, including one on the same kind of ball down at LSU.
It got worse as the game went on.
“We had Broderick (Jenkins) knock one out of bounds on the sideline, and Bruce (Irvin) had one pulled out but they ruled he was already down. Those are things we have to continue to press on, and hopefully it will change for us,” Casteel said.
The answer is simple.
“We have to execute better. We have to do a lot of things better and turnovers is one of them,” Casteel said.
So, too, is sacks.
You might have noticed a paragraph or two up we mentioned a guy named Bruce Irvin. It might be his first mention of the year for what he did in a game. He terrorized quarterbacks last year for 14 sacks and was talking about getting maybe 20 this year.
He has one, the only sack of the year for WVU.
Think about that for a minute. The quarterbacks against WVU have time to throw the ball; therefore, there are fewer interceptions.
Why is it like this?
“That’s part of it,” Casteel said of the correlation between lack of sacks and lack of interceptions. “But I don’t think we’ve been physical enough and reckless
enough. The reason? I don’t know. Young kids? But that’s not an excuse. We want to play at a high level. I think the kids are used to playing at a high level.”
Another part of it is that Chris Neild is gone, now a rock in the middle of the Washington Redskins’ defense.
Teams don’t have to deal with him, allowing more attention to be paid to Irvin and Julian Miller, who had 10 sacks last year.
Coach Dana Holgorsen isn’t sure what’s happened, either.
“I don’t know what’s going on. We’ve got to keep working at it,” he said at his Tuesday press briefing. “Whatever the reasons are, they’ve got to overcome them.
“If there’s frustration on where the effort level needs to be, then we need to figure out how to get the effort. It’s something we’ve talked about. It has nothing to do with coaching. It’s the same guys, the same scheme, same everything, same kids, but that’s just how it is.
“Maybe people are keying more on (Irvin and Miller). Our job is put them in the position to be successful. Their job as players is to work hard and be ready to play the game and give it everything they’ve got.”
What’s more, the linebackers, including J.T. Thomas, are gone, as is versatile, hard-hitting safety Robert Sands.
“We’re not, obviously, on a par with those kids we had last year, but the core of that group had been starters for three years,” Casteel admitted.
He is in a building situation now, a young defense that isn’t ready or capable of doing some of the things last year’s defense, which sent five players to the NFL, could do.
“We just have to execute things better. We’ll do something really well for two series, then the next series it’s, ‘What happened?’ The kids have to become a little more consistent and physical,” Casteel said.
Normally, about now, we’d be giving you a cute little ending, but we’re not able to do that now, either, because this may not be the end; it may only be the beginning of a defense coming together to make big plays.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.