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November 10, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Defense under fire for opponents’ piles of points

MORGANTOWN — For those who haven’t spent the past month trudging through the backwoods in search of the perfect buck, you are aware that there is a segment of the West Virginia public that is unhappy with the Mountaineers’ 3-3-5 defense and the man who runs it, defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel.

It’s mentioned quite strongly on the talk shows and in the social media, and when you consider that Syracuse put 49 points on the board three weeks back and that Louisville stuck 38 up last week, neither known as an offensive juggernaut, it is fair criticism.

Ranked 67th in the nation in scoring defense and rankled about it, both head coach Dana Holgorsen and Casteel understand that even at this late date there is much work to do to fix the problem.

To their credit, even when given an excuse from which they might be able to crawl out from under some of the blame, they refuse to take it, manning up as a good coach always will.

See, there have been some things going on with this West Virginia University football team that are out of control of the defense, even though in the end they bear the scars from it. For example, WVU’s offense has turned over the ball on fumble or interception 14 times, 10 of them in their own territory, leaving a short field to defend.

Then there has been the special teams, which are guilty of some rather ridiculously ragged punting, two in the past game of 11 and 12 yards, and of giving up a number of long returns, if not for touchdowns — of which there have been four — to set up positive field position for the opposition.

In fact, while WVU is ranked 67th in the nation in scoring defense, it is ranked far better in total defense, being a top 25 team there at No. 23. That is a wide gap.

Looking at these hidden statistics, one might consider the job the defense has done hasn’t been quite as terrible as some would make it, but neither Holgorsen nor Casteel will bite on that.

“I don’t care what the situation is. Your job is to go out there and stop people,” Holgorsen said fervently.

“That’s part of the game. The bottom line is, no matter where you are, you have to go out and do a good job. The kids understand that. We just haven’t been consistent in doing the things we need to do,” added Casteel, refusing to hide behind any excuse.

Holgorsen looked back on the Louisville loss, which included two turnovers, each on a fumble, and two shanked punts.

“For our two turnovers, one was on our side of the field, which we did a good job of stopping. We threw up a wall and stopped them. That was a winning performance on defense. That was a great job,” he said.

“On the times we shanked a punt, they still had to go 55 yards and 65 yards. That’s not a tremendously short field. That’s normal to the point that you’ve got to play defense.”

If there is one thing about Holgorsen as a coach, he is a straight shooter when it comes to criticism. If there’s something wrong, he’ll put it out there, and he doesn’t pull punches. He believes in accountability and understands that his players will get credit from the media and the public when they do well and must accept the blame when they don’t.

Excuses? He has no use for them, finds them to be counterproductive.

“If you keep looking for excuses, then you’re not going to get any better. There are plenty of ways to spin everything in football, but I don’t buy into that,” he said.

Indeed there are, and Casteel understands that, too.

“We just have to play better; that’s the main thing,” Casteel said.

The problem is inexperience, having lost so much talent from last year’s team when that 3-3-5 defense was just fine and when Casteel was being named Defensive Coach of the Year from one organization.

“The kids have been put in some tough situations at times, but if you look back, last year at times they were put in some tough situations and were able to get out of it,” Casteel said.

The difference is the players getting out of it were named Chris Neild, Brandon Hogan, J.T. Thomas and Robert Sands and are now on NFL rosters.

Casteel knew this would be a trying season coming in.

“Going into it we had an idea. We don’t get caught up in the hype that goes on. We know what we see,” he said.

Then some injuries hit, slowing the maturation process, forcing different combinations to be used at times.

“We haven’t gotten in sync throughout the whole year. We play well in spurts, then turn around and don’t play well,” he said. “It’s been frustrating, for the kids and for the coaches. We have to bang through it.”

With a crucial game like Cincinnati coming up Saturday, there is no time like the present.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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