It was born out of necessity, stolen away from another school, this 3-3-5 defense that has carried West Virginia University through most of this season and well could turn out to be the best defense the school has ever had.
As the Mountaineers head into Friday’s Backyard Brawl showdown, trying to keep alive their hopes for a Big East Conference title and trip to a BCS bowl, they are the only team in the nation to not have given up more than 21 points in the season.
It is run by defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, who installed it under Rich Rodriguez along with Todd Graham, now head coach at Tulsa, back in 2002. It is a scheme that most everyone else has abandoned but that serves WVU well.
“It’s what you are; it’s who you are; it’s what you recruit to,” head coach Bill Stewart said. “We have recruited to it with guys like Terence Garvin, Eain Smith, Robert Sands, who’s a big tall guy. Sidney Glover is perfect in this defense.
“It’s been a real, real fit for West Virginia. This defense will have to be here for a while. It’s good and it’s sound.”
Graham puts it this way, speaking from his office at Tulsa.
“It’s not some magical scheme. It’s about men and coaching. It’s about coaching fundamentals and getting kids to believe and coaching with a passion. That’s what Jeff Casteel does so well; he’s a great fundamentalist and teacher.”
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There can be no doubt that the defense has caught the attention of the Big East’s coaches. Ask them about it and you get buried with an onslaught of platitudes.
“First and foremost, they have very talented defenders,” said Connecticut coach Randy Edsall, who found a way to turn the 16 points his Huskies scored in an overtime game into a victory over WVU. “Those guys can really run and they are physical. ... It is one of those schemes you don’t see week-in and week-out.
That is part of the mystique of the defense, its uniqueness.
“It is like running the wishbone or running the option and doing those sorts of things. They do a great job of coaching it, but the players, they have do a great job and are very talented.”
Dave Wannstedt, whose Pitt team faces it this week, sees the defense in much the same way.
“I would go from the standpoint of getting ready to face an option team, an Army or Navy, a team that runs the triple option, something you don’t see very often,” Wannstedt said. “It’s not a normal three-down defense because there’s an extra linebacker and that presents blocking schemes that you are not going to see any time during the year except against West Virginia.”
Wannstedt believes it is tougher to face the Mountaineers in a non-conference setting or as a new coach than after you’ve seen the defense for a while.
“If you play them year after year there is a carryover,” he said. “If you show and play them for the first time it will stress you.”
Next week Rutgers’ head coach Greg Schiano gets his crack at the defense, and he should know something about that aspect of the game, having been a one-time defensive coordinator at Miami and having served on the defensive staffs of the Chicago Bears and Penn State.
“You need to recruit for that defense if you are going to play that,” Schiano said. “In a 4-3, single-gap-control defense, we can get away with smaller, quicker lineman. With (West Virginia), they need to have bigger guys up front who can latch on to offensive linemen.”
That would be your nose guard Chris Neild or your tackle Scooter Berry.
“It has been very effective for Jeff (Casteel),” Schiano said. “He is the best at it, and they have been very good for a long time. Sustained success is the greatest measure, and he’s done a very good job.”
South Florida managed only two field goals against WVU in losing 20-6, leaving offensive coordinator Todd Fitch to marvel about the defense in the Tampa Tribune.
“They haven’t changed a call in three years,” he said. “These guys have been playing three years in a row and have tremendous experience, and so they can handle adjustments; they can handle adversity and success.
“I don’t know if they have any All-Americans running around, but they’re all really good players. I think it’s really the cohesion and the speed they play with because they’re confident and know what they’re doing.”
Much of it has to do with the way Casteel and his staff have coached them, though. Improvement comes weekly.
All you must do is think back to the Keith Tandy who broke in at cornerback last year or the Brandon Hogan who broke in on defense two years ago, looking intimidated and beaten early before learning proper techniques.
Today there is not a better pair of cornerbacks in the East, with Tandy leading the Big East with six interceptions.
It’s been the same with linebackers like Anthony Leonard and Najee Goode, players who weren’t penciled in going into camp at the spot they find themselves, Goode being a backup to Leonard at the Sam linebacker until Leonard moved into the middle.
“I did not see myself starting at Sam until things happened in camp (Pat Lazear, the starter, went down with a leg injury). When I moved back there, I was more comfortable. I had been in the middle the last couple of years,” Leonard said.
But he was torn, too, expecting Lazear to return.
“I also felt like, ‘Dang, this taking time away from me playing Sam just when I am getting comfortable there,’” he said. “But overall, this is better.”