By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The blitz of publicity over freshman Dustin Garrison’s record-setting day at the office for the West Virginia offense, as refreshing as it was in bringing the running game back into the picture, obscured another kind of blitz on Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium, that being the blitz that a rejuvenated Mountaineer defense was throwing at Bowling Green.
If the game represented a step forward for the offense, which heretofore had leaned heavily on heaving the football rather than carrying it, it represented perhaps even a larger step forward for the defense.
Much has been noted about the Mountaineers 643 total yards while little has been said about the defense holding Bowling Green, a team that had shown itself to be capable on offense, to a miserly 217 yards and one touchdown.
Now it is true that the Falcons were without two of their most prolific players due to injury, which means you can put an asterisk on the performance. But the Mountaineers were also below full strength, as starting strong side linebacker Doug Rigg missed the game after breaking a bone in his hand and undergoing mid-week surgery.
That put defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel in a fix, for this has been a defense that he has had to nurse along as he replaced nine players from last year.
To fill that gap Casteel took Najee Goode, who had played the strong side a lot and well last year, from the middle linebacker starting spot he had claimed while giving redshirt freshman Jewone Snow his first start.
“Najee played really well for us there last year so we wanted to put him there. The next best guy for us was to put Jewone in the middle,” Casteel said. “Jewone has worked hard. He’s going to be a good football player but he’s young. This gave him a chance to play.”
He made the most of the chance, leading WVU with nine tackles.
“Moving outside gave me a little more freedom to do what I want to do out there, but I missed being in the middle,” Goode admitted. “Jewone understands that he can move around but he has to be where he is supposed to be when the ball is snapped. Jewone is good enough to make the plays.”
The thing the defense did best is the thing it had been doing worst until this game, and that is taking the ball away. The Mountaineers entered the game as the only team in America that had not recovered a fumble, but took care of that right on the opening kickoff when Eain Smith’s crushing tackle shook the ball loose and Travis Bell recovered it.
By the time the game ended WVU had pounced on another fumble and intercepted three passes, two of them by the All-Big East cornerback Keith Tandy.
“It should have been three,” he said. “But it was probably a matter of time for him.”
Coach Dana Holgorsen was thrilled with the turn of events for the defense.
“Getting five turnovers, that’s huge,” Holgorsen said during his Sunday night media call. “The defense made plays on the ball and that was important. It’s something we talked about all week.”
The other huge thing about the play of the defense was the fact that it seemed to get better as the game wore on.
“We wanted to stress with them how important it is to finish because in our earlier games we had played pretty well in the first half but we hadn’t finished well,” Casteel said.
NOTES: A week after having no champions, something that Coach Dana Holgorsen said will be the case when the Mountaineers lose, running back Dustin Garrison was named offensive champion for gaining 291 yards against Bowling Green and cornerback Keith Tandy was the defensive champion after intercepting two passes. Placekicker Tyler Bitancurt was named the special teams champion while Russell Haughton-James was the offensive scout champion and Ben Tomasek the defensive scout champion ... Holgorsen is opening up competition for the punting job but says Bitancurt will not be the punter.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.