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October 30, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN-WVU’s defense needs to dig down deep

MORGANTOWN — Dana Holgorsen had missed the morning paper in Morgantown on Monday, something most college football coaches have learned to do when they have lost two consecutive games as his West Virginia Mountaineers had done.

They had done so in such a way that there really wasn’t anything he or any of his staff could learn by reading the newspaper, the offense having scored just 28 points in two games after having averaged nearly twice that per game through their first five.

And that wasn’t even the big problem. What they had created was a defense for which there was no defense. It had given up 279 points in the first seven games, an average of 39.9 points per game. Spread that out over a season of 13 games and it comes to 518 points, leaving the season record of 364 season points further behind than speedy wideout Tavon Austin would leave center Joey Madsen behind in a

100-yard dash.

In truth, it has created a tremendous embarrassment for a school that used to rely heavily upon its defensive work ... a school that has sent eight players into the NFL draft over the past three years without sending an offensive player.

It obviously has gotten under the skin of many, for the Morgantown newspaper that Holgorsen failed to read included strong comments from three recent graduates about the lack of WVU defense ... not just the failure to tackle men carrying the football or cover receivers running routes to catch it, but more for an attitude that best could be described — and was described — as a lack of pride.

Former defensive players Chris Neild, J.T. Thomas and Julian Miller spoke out about it Monday morning, indicating that there was little pride on this defense, a defense that is run by a first-year coordinator in Joe DeForest and that is loaded with youth trying to perform in what is a new defensive scheme.

All of that — an inexperienced coordinator and nearly all new defensive coaching staff teaching a new defense to young players — would indicate a potential problem, but that isn’t what bothers these former players. They are bothered that they seem to care more than those involved in the program today care.

Pride, Neild said, was lacking and he should know, for he was one of the proudest defenders ever here, a rock in the middle that wound up with the Washington Redskins because of that pride.

“I’ve watched WVU games and I don’t see that kind of pride on the defensive side. I don’t see people swarming. I don’t see them attacking. Guys from my class — J.T. Thomas, Bruce Irvin, Scotter Berry, Anthony Leonard — we notice that stuff,” he was quoted as saying.

There were other things said by the three men, and we will get to them, but when this was brought up to Holgorsen during the Monday morning Big 12 media call, he offered little in the way of concern about it.

“I’m not sure who said that and I don’t care who said that,” he said. “We have been telling our players to worry about what we say inside here. We don’t listen to what is said on the outside.”

Now that is an understandable statement from a head coach. If he agrees with the talk he would be indicating that he was leaning toward making changes, either in the defense or the people coaching it or playing it, and if he disagrees with it he looks as if he’s a stubborn fool, for the one thing he can’t say is that it has worked out.

But the fact is that what he has done has been an abject failure to date. The worst part is not that it gives up nearly 50 points — or more — every time on the field but that it has shown nothing in the way of improvement.

And while all the right things have been said by the offense about the defense, you can bet there are whispers about having to score more than 50 points to have any chance to win, a pressurized situation that can’t last or work.

Two straight losses in which the offense scored but 14 points well can be the product of being under such heavy pressure, game after game, week after week, knowing that so much as a fumble or an interception can beat them ... even a four-and-out.

A team, almost no team, can score 50 or more every time it walks on the field, and that is what WVU has been looking at.

So now the question is what to do about it. One would not imagine changing either coaches or systems in mid-season and certainly they have tried just about every available player, some of them holding their own but too many either too young, too inexperienced or lacking in some other area.

What’s lacking? Maybe an attitude that Neild said his defenses possessed.

“When we played in 2010, we played with anger,” Neild said. “We didn’t care who we played because we wanted to stop everybody. Maybe we lose a couple of games, but we always knew that there was another series, another game. We had each others’ backs. I think that’s the difference between then and now. And it’s a huge issue.”

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

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