The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

December 4, 2010

WVU defense on par with ’96 team

MORGANTOWN — If West Virginia University defeats Rutgers at noon today in Puskar Stadium and wins at least a share of the Big East championship, rest assured it is a victory that belongs first and foremost to the defense.

And, should the Mountaineers shut down or shut out this Rutgers team that has already lost four in a row and Connecticut should lose at South Florida in an 8 p.m. televised game, the BCS bid that will ensue will also be there mainly because of what some would say is the nation’s best defense.

There is, in reality, no reason all of that shouldn’t happen because, after all, the football gods owe the Mountaineers this one.

The last time WVU — or anyone in the Big East, for that matter — had a defense like this was in 1996, a team whose defense was among the best anywhere ever but one that would have its season yanked out from under it just as it had reached its highest point.

Those who were there that October night know what happened. The Mountaineers had Miami beaten, 7-3, 21 seconds to play, when all they had to do was punt the ball and the nation’s No. 11 team would have been defeated and WVU would have been 8-0.

Not that punting the ball was easy for this group, for it already had five punts blocked during the season. To make matters worse, Hurricane defensive back Tremain Mack stood on the corner of the rush with seven blocked punts to his credit.

You know what happened. The stadium was roaring when this team that had given up 51 points in the first seven games saw the ball scooped up and run into the end zone for the touchdown that won the game, ended the unbeaten season and unraveled the rest of the year as WVU lost four of the final five games.

What a defense that was, though. It was led Canute Curtis, a rush linebacker who would set the school record for 16.5 sacks that year, more than even Bruce Irvin has thought of this season, becoming a finalist not for the Dick Butkus Award presented the nation’s best linebacker but the Bronko Nagurski Award presented the nation’s best defense player.

No fewer than 12 players played some form of professional football, while eight from that team would eventually be drafted by the NFL — Curtis, Mike Logan, Charles Fisher, Henry Slay, John Thornton, Gary Stills, Kevin Landolt and Barrett Green.

As he does now, Bill Kirelawich coached the defensive line on that team and Steve Dunlap, today coaching the safeties, was the defensive coordinator. They know what made that group so special.

“They were all smart and they all had a feel for the game,” Kirelawich recalled.

Dunlap echoed the sentiment.

“We played Purdue, and they used a two back and tight end set up and we played the whole game without calling out a coverage for them,” Dunlap said. “They were smart enough and experienced enough to do it on their own.”

It almost didn’t matter with that defense what was thrown at them by the coaching staff.

“We tried to come up with things to throw at them but there wasn’t anything that they couldn’t do,” Dunlap said.

It was more than being smart and experienced, though.

“When I think of that defense I think of their toughness and that they would run and hit,” Kirelawich said.

This year’s defense, of course, is known more for its speed than anything else, but as the season has gone on it has begun putting big licks on offensive players, the kind that rattle the molars and knock the football loose.

Coming into the season did Kirelawich know this defense could be as good as 1996?

“I ain’t got a crystal ball,” Kirelawich said. “I did know that there was a lot of talent and speed.”

As it is, the talent has been amazing, the only team in the nation to hold its opponents to 21 points or fewer in every game.

And the speed has been too much for most teams to handle.

“They’re fast,” Coastal Carolina quarterback Zach MacDowall, a transfer from Wake Forest, would say after losing to WVU in the season opener. “It felt like maybe they had 12-15 guys on the field in that 3-3-5 ... a lot of movement with the linebackers.”

Some of that talent will be playing its final game at Puskar Stadium today — defensive tackle Scooter Berry, nose guard Chris Neild, safety Sidney Glover, cornerback Brandon Hogan, linebacker J.T. Thomas, linebacker Pat Lazear and linebacker Anthony Leonard.

They are hoping that their effort — second in the nation in scoring defense and third in total defense — brings them the major bowl bid that the 1996 brothers missed out on.

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

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