The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

November 21, 2010

Defense lifts Mountaineers past Cardinals

LOUISVILLE — There are any number of ways to describe how West Virginia University’s defense won another game for the punchless Mountaineers, the least interesting of all usually being found on a stat sheet, but in the case of Saturday’s 17-10 victory over Louisville this just can’t be avoided.

See, you can watch football for the next 50 years, and you will not see a team’s leading rusher being the punter.

It happened Saturday.

The Cardinals were tossed around like rag dolls by the Jeff Casteel’s assassins, who came into the game the nation’s fourth-ranked defense and may have left No. 1. Louisville was battered, beaten, bloodied and butchered so badly that by game’s end the Cardinals had completely given up on running the football at all.

See, for the game, Louisville totaled 26 ground yards on 30 carries, which is enough to turn their faces Cardinal red with embarrassment, but toss in that Chris Philpott, the punter, with a 21-yard fake punt run was the leading rusher for Louisville.

If you do your math, that means that Louisville gained a net of 5 yards rushing on the other 29 carries.

I do not want to say that is impressive, but considering that Louisville was the Big East’s conference rushing leader and that Bilal Powell was the nation’s fifth leading rusher, well, that might catch your attention.

To be honest, Powell carried only four times due to illness — perhaps Leonarditis — but he netted zero yards, his longest gain being two yards before meeting an immovable object named Anthony Leonard, who was the leading tackler for the Mountaineers with seven tackles, each of them a solo tackle.

In all, WVU had eight tackles for losses, four of them sacks, two by the ever-present Bruce Irvin, a third-down specialist who expanded his duties to playing on second down in this game since Louisville was not in a running mode.

The truth is that Louisville’s touchdown proved to be nothing more bothersome than a pesky “gnat,” coming not on offense but defense when Geno Smith was sacked by defensive end Rodney Gnat, fumbled into the end zone with Daniel Brown recovering.

The touchdown could have been avoided had tackle Don Barclay been able to block Gnat or had equipment manager Dan Nehlen equipped him with a spray bottle of Raid to take care the critter.

Louisville did put on a magnificent defensive performance of its own against the Mountaineers, something that is becoming as common as crumbs on the tablecloth after eating toast.

“I saw everything today,” quarterback Geno Smith said after being slowed down with nine completions in 20 attempts for 133 yards while being sacked four times himself.

“I looked out there sometimes and I saw five guys from the side coming and last I saw zero man coverage. They had every gap. I kept saying, ‘We can break the belly” but Noel (Devine) got to the safety only once and couldn’t get by him.

“It was all blitz, blitz, blitz. It was a chess match back and forth. Today wasn’t checkers; it was chess.”

And, in the end, it was the Mountaineers who were able to declare checkmate, but only because the defense once more rose up and smothered another offense.

A week ago it was Cincinnati, the best passing team in the conference, who left that game without converting any of 12 third-down plays. This time it was Louisville, which managed to convert only 2 of 13. That means in the last two weeks the defense has given up two first downs on 25 third-down tries, which makes it pretty tough for a team to put a drive together.

“Their defense is very good; they are the No. 4 defense in the country and played like it,” Louisville coach Charlie Strong said.

In many ways, this was the best game the Mountaineers played on defense this season for so many contributed so much, beginning with the amazing Mr. Irvin.

How good is he at rushing the passer? This is the way safety Robert Sands explained it.

“It’s a race to the quarterback with this defense, but Bruce always seems to win it.”

Considering Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium sits not far from Churchill Downs, you might say Irvin is the Secretariat of pass rushers.

Irvin now leads the Mountaineers with 10 sacks and says “I get chills running up and down my body when I see the quarterback there.”

But he is not alone on the pass rush or on stopping the run. There’s Leonard and J.T. Thomas making huge hits, Thomas opening the game with a solo tackle for a four-yard loss. There’s cornerbacks Brandon Hogan and Keith Tandy shutting down the passing game, and there’s Sands and Sidney Glover and Terence Garvin blackening eyes out of the safety spot.

Louisville actually led this one 3-0 when Philpott, who not only is the team’s leading rusher, punts for an average of 45.9 yards on eight punts, one of them 73 yards, kicked a 43-yard field goal.

After Devine picked up a TD by bursting two yards into the end zone, Brown recovered the Smith fumble and Louisville led 10-7.

“They scored 122 points in the second quarter this year. How many did they get in our second quarter. Seven. Who gave it to them? The offense,” said WVU coach Bill Stewart. “I went in and told the defense, ‘You’re fine; stay with the plan.’”

They did, and the Mountaineers retook the lead on a long drive that included a third-down and 10 completion from Smith to J.D. Woods and a 48-yard strike from Smith to Devine that put the ball at the Louisville 2, from where Ryan Clarke busted his way into the end zone.

The final points came on a Tyler Bitancurt 43-yard field goal.

That victory gave WVU a 7-3 record, still in contention for the Big East title but in need of help.

NOTES: WVU slotback Jock Sanders went into the game needing three catches to become the all-time leading career receiver in WVU history but could get no more than two, tying David Saunders at 191 catches. Ironically, Sanders’ record tying catch went for no gain and almost was wiped out by a penalty, but Louisville declined it … Sanders now has caught passes in 38 consecutive games, third on the Big East all-time list and second on the WVU list … West Virginia’s 261 total yards was its second lowest total of the season after the LSU game … Devine continues to struggle, gaining 58 yards and averaging just 2.5 yards a carry. Devine now has 4,209 career yards, third on the school’s all-time list … Geno Smith, with 2,003 passing yards, surpasses Major Harris’ 1988 total of 1,915 and Mike Sherwood’s 1968 total of 1,948 and now ranks second all-time on the sophomore passing list … Cornerback Keith Tandy now has six interceptions this year, five of them on tipped balls.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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