The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

October 6, 2010

WVU defense working well

MORGANTOWN — When Rich Rodriguez first came to West Virginia he tried to make do with a rather traditional defense that included a four-man front but soon realized that this was not the best approach for the Mountaineers.

Putting his inventiveness to work on the defensive side of the ball, Rodriguez analyzed the situation and realized that at West Virginia he was more likely to have capable, athletic safeties and linebackers than burly, athletic defensive linemen.

With that in mind, he installed a rarely used 3-3-5 stack defense, one that took advantage of the physical strengths his team had and limited the shortcomings.

This is how Coach Bill Stewart explained the origins of the 3-3-5 stack defense.

“The type of athletes we get at West Virginia is of the strong safety mode. We don’t get a lot of big linemen. We get the t’weener guy, the 6-3, 6-4 rangy, thin guy. So with our defense, what we have is three big guys and a three-linebacker spoke and it gives us six in the box. We have a hub of five DBs and we can bring in a safety for a linebacker or a corner for a safety.

There is great versatility in the defense and great speed, so it can take many different shapes and forms depending upon the look the offensive gives and the down and distance.

Jeff Casteel became the defensive coordinator and really built that into a solid, workable defense and stayed after Rodriguez left, working with Stewart to even expand upon the theories. It reached the point that defense, not offense, is the strength of the Mountaineers.

The defense has worked better than anyone could imagine. As the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels come to town for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Puskar Stadium, they come in to face the No. 8-ranked defense in America.

Statistically, this is what Casteel and Stewart have put together:

• The defense is 12th against scoring in the nation.

• The defense is 10th against the rush in the nation.

• The defense is 20th against the pass in the nation.

• Opponents are making third down conversions at just 22.2 percent, hitting on 12 of 54, ranking No. 2 in the nation.

If you think back to Stewart’s first season as head coach, the biggest problem the team had was getting off the field on third down. In 2008 opponents converted 42 percent of their third-down tries against the Mountaineers, roughly twice as many as they now are converting.

Last year opponents converted 40.5 percent of third downs, only a slight improvement.

But this year, with the Mountaineers are using a lot of four-man rush for third down passing situations that includes really strong pass rushers in Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller, along with a new blitz package, they have tightened the screws on third down.

“It’s all speed ball now,” Stewart said. “All we do is throw speed, but every so often we throw a curveball at the offense.”

That is the changing defenses — the 30 and the SWAT packages — that bring unconventional blitzing.

Things have gone so well that you might expect defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel would have a problem keeping his team from getting big heads, but somehow no one has had a problem getting his helmet on.

“All you have to do is watch practice,” Casteel said. “I think the kids and coaches understand when we turn the film on there’s a lot of things we have to do to continue to get better.”

Perhaps the best thing is that this West Virginia defense is willing to take criticism, is mature enough to understand that there is room to improve.

“The kids have done a great job. They hustle, have a great attitude. They have everything you need to have to get better, but you turn on any game there’s a ton of mistakes that can be fixed,” Casteel said.

Interestingly, they have played at a high level despite some problems. Starting cornerback Brandon Hogan was suspended a game after a run-in with authorities, middle linebacker Pat Lazear was injured, which caused Casteel to move Anthony Leonard to the middle and put Najee Goode in on the outside.

That has slowed the installation of some of the defense.

“We haven’t installed the entire package,” Casteel said. “We’ll add to that each week and put a new wrinkle in. The thing that has happened is we had some injuries, you get guys dinged up and that has slowed that progression.”

Even though the installation of the entire defensive package has been slowed, the play of the defense hasn’t been.

“That’s to the kids credit,” Casteel said. “We had guys who were able to step in there and play at a high level without a drop off.”

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