The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

October 18, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN - WVU defense carrying the load so far

MORGANTOWN — They say what goes around comes around; that our life cycle is more circular than linear, and so it is.

This past week the realization was driven home as West Virginia’s defense took yet another step toward greatness, shutting down, if not shutting out, South Florida. In an age where offense is king, the Mountaineers are muscling their way up the polls on the strength of their defense.

The game they played against South Florida was a reminder that this year was the 50th anniversary of the team that convinced me that football is a game played defense first, the 1960 University of Missouri Tigers.

As hard as it to believe that as young a person as this could have been entering my sophomore year at Missouri back then, it just is something cannot be changed.

It was a different world then, yes, and a different game. At the time Oklahoma was king, having won 14 consecutive Big Eight championships under Bud Wilkinson, but Dan Devine was changing things at Missouri and he did it defense first.

He put together a punishing, clock eating ground game to go with a defense headed by an All-American defense end named Danny LaRose, who much like many of the great defenders of that era looked the part.

As it was, Missouri rode this defense to a No. 1 ranking in the nation following a 41-19 victory over a finally vulnerable Oklahoma team in Norman. It was the first time Missouri had ever been No. 1 in anything but party-school ratings and it responded accordingly, that being a rather drunk weekend around the Commons.

Even the businesses got into it, answering their phones with the phrase “We’re No. 1!”

As it was, it would not last. Much as West Virginia did when it went into the Pitt game of 2007 looking at a national championship, so it was with that Missouri team with its rival, Kansas. And the results were similar, for as the Panthers stunned WVU, 13-9, the Jayhawks beat Missouri, 23-7, behind a nine-man front defense and the running of a fullback named Bert Coan.

The victory later would be forfeited, for Coan had been declared ineligible after transferring from TCU and Kansas was even told not to play him by the Big Eight, but the rivalry had such intensity that they really didn’t care as long as they could win on the field.

Missouri lost its No. 1 ranking but did get matched in the Orange Bowl with Navy and its Heisman Trophy-winning running back Joe Bellino.

With former Navy hero and then President-elect John F. Kennedy on hand, Navy never had a chance as that defense held him and his Heisman Trophy to a meager 1 yard rushing in a 21-14 victory. On the day, the Midshipmen gained only 6 total rushing yards.

Now, a half century and a million gray hairs later, the lesson of defense is being driven home again by a defensive coordinator in Jeff Casteel who has to be considered a candidate for whatever award it is that goes to the assistant coach of the year and his perplexing 3-3-5 stack defense.

That West Virginia is not undefeated and in the hunt for a national championship is a shame, for in its only loss, to LSU, the Tigers

managed to score 17 points on three possessions while gaining only 14 net yards against the Mountaineer defense, one score on a punt return and a touchdown and field goal coming after WVU's offense turned the ball over twice inside its own 10.

The great part of the defense was highlighted against South Florida when the team’s award from that game came out and the defensive champion of the week was all 11 starters, for this truly is a team defense that has no weak point.

It is tough against the run, tough against the pass. It merges speed with hard hits, capable of rushing the passer mercilessly and yet covering deep. The safeties seem to be everywhere and the only reason they don’t make every tackle is that the linebackers get there first.

The defense leads the Big East in scoring defense, rushing defense, pass defense, pass efficiency defense and total defense, where they give up 47 less yards a game than their closest competitor.

The offense understands it isn’t yet where it was expected to be and appreciates the way the defense has picked it up.

“We’re putting too much stress on our defense,” said receiver Jock Sanders after the USF game. “It was a great win, but we have to help them more. Congratulations to our defense. They played their [butts] off.”

And the defense seems to be willing to wait for the offense to get going without worrying about not being able to do the job.

"If the other offense can't score, they can't win,'' linebacker Najee Goode said. "They get three points or seven points or 10 points, we're going to win.”

Same way it was 50 years ago.

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

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