By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
A year ago, if there was a solid sector of the West Virginia defense, the one that statistically — and practically — was the worst in school history, it was the defensive line.
Perhaps that’s simply because of the league in which West Virginia played — a league that was pass-happy — but the statistics showed until the Pinstripe Bowl when Syracuse ran for more than 300 yards over a snow-covered field WVU’s run defense was adequate.
The Mountaineers actually held Maryland to 46 rushing yards in 35 carries, typical rushing power Kansas State to 88 rushing yards in 27 carries, TCU to 78 yards in 35 carries during a two-overtime game and even Oklahoma to 108 yards on 31 carries.
At no time until the Syracuse game had any opponent rushed for 100 yards in a game against the Mountaineers.
Two-thirds of the line returns, anchored in the middle by a rock of a man in Shaq Rowell, with long Will Clarke at one end while sophomore Eric Kinsey has found a job at the other end despite having the ability to play multiple positions.
“We haven’t moved them around much yet, with the exception of a couple guys who have been here,” said defensive line coach Erik Slaughter. “He’s doing one thing, and I don’t think it’s fair to him to ask him to do multiple things.
“We want to make sure we narrow his responsibilities and let him play fast. He’s definitely athletic, he’s explosive and he can change a game. My job is not to slow that down. I don’t want to hamper his ability to play with those strengths by loading him up too much. I don’t want to do that.”
But not to take away from the senior Clarke, whose stated goal this season is to increase his pressure on the quarterback from the corner, it is Rowell who anchors the line.
This is vital. To have a solid defensive team, a team using a three-man front, as WVU plans to do most of the time, must have an immovable object at nose guard as WVU had when Chris Neild was playing there.
Rowell provides the same thing in a thankless, difficult position to play.
“It’s like a mugging on every play,” he admitted. “It’s a tough way to go through school. Some guys think it’s tough to major in microbiology. They ought to try this.”
“I feel like my job is to occupy two guys, maybe three guys. But if I can do that, the linebackers can make a lot of plays and we’ll be a better defense because of it,” he explained.
And the guys he is occupying are not exactly majoring in ballet. They are guards and a center, most of them looking down on Rowell’s 305 pounds.
Handling a group like that makes Saturdays the toughest day of the week for Rowell.
“A lot of guys don’t want to do that but I accept the responsibility because, at the end of the day, if you got three guys double teaming me, you have two guys unblocked. Then they can make plays,” he said. “That will put the offense in second and long and third and long, where they don’t want to be versus last year when it was second and five or third and one.”
To make it worse, Rowell is in a position in which there is very little glory.
“If I do my job, I make the linebackers look good. The fans may not know (what I did), but they are making tackles because of me. The linebackers know. They’re not stupid,” he said.
So much so that there are times when they take him out and buy him dinner.
“Doug Rigg, he owes me an Applebee’s night. We’re going there tomorrow sometime. We got a date,” Rowell said.
The nose guard’s main responsibility is against the run. The sacks that set off celebratory dances by players at other positions don’t come often to a nose guard unless a quarterback is trying to move up into the pocket to avoid a rush.
Last year Rowell played all 13 games and started 12, but had just two tackles for losses and no sacks.
“When a team is tempoing you as much as these teams do it’s kind of hard to get a pass rush,” he explained. “There’s only two plays these teams run, an inside zone and a screen. That means the quarterback is going to have the ball for only two seconds.
“So what they want us to do is try and get pressure instead of getting sacks, to get our hands up and try to make the quarterback turn sideways instead of forward. If you get him throwing sideways instead of north and south you will be more successful.”
Not being able to get to the quarterback can create a good bit of frustration.
“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “Sometimes last year I was screaming, ‘This sucks! Run the ball! Run the ball!’ But from a defensive standpoint I understand why teams throw the ball.”
NOTES: Jeff Culhane has agreed to leave the Nebraska Husker Sports Network after six years to become the new radio play-by-play announcer for West Virginia University baseball and women’s basketball, according to media reports ... He replaces Travis Jones on women’s basketball. Jones has agreed to become the voice of Fairmont State football and men’s basketball and the coaches’ shows. He also replaces Kyle Wiggs on baseball ... This represents the first change in on-air talent made by IMG College, which recently purchased the broadcasts. Tony Caridi remains play-by-play on WVU football and men’s basketball. There has been no announcement on the talent that will work with Caridi.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.