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November 14, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN: WVU shuts up, shuts down Cincy’s Woods

MORGANTOWN — Some games are won before they even begin, and there can be no better example of that than Saturday afternoon’s “Massacre at Mountaineer Field,” a 37-10 victory by West Virginia University over Cincinnati.

It began two weeks ago, really, when the Mountaineers dragged their ragged butts off the field in Connecticut, a seemingly devastating loss behind them. They were two games behind Pitt in the Big East, and even the big man in the middle of the WVU defense, Chris Neild, thought it was over.

“Emotions were flying real low,” he said.

They regrouped in practice, worked on old things, added new things, rested up and waited until Thursday night, when many of them gathered as a group and watched their season turn around as Pitt got itself knocked off by that same Connecticut team.

It was a resurrection, of sorts, but still they knew that had to play better than they had been playing when they returned on Saturday against Cincinnati. The offense had to come up with a playbook full of answers, and the defense had to play even better than it had.

But the match that would light the fuse on this game had not yet been struck, not until pregame warm-ups.

“We like to stare the opposition down,” linebacker J.T. Thomas said long after the bomb had gone off.

While he was standing there staring, Cincinnati receiver D.J. Woods came by. Woods had been recruited by West Virginia, had even given the Mountaineers a verbal commitment. He’d been hosted in his visits here by linebacker Najee Goode.

Then he decommitted and enrolled at Cincinnati.

Woods looked at Thomas, something of an inflammable person himself, and began to chatter.

“This is my house and this is my field,” he said to Thomas.

Just trash talk, but the one person you don’t want to talk trash to is J.T. Thomas.

Thomas gathered his defense around him in the locker room. He told them what Woods had said. Then he looked at them with a laser-like stare.

“I want his head. I don’t care who brings it to me. I want his head or I’ll go get it myself,” he growled.

Let’s just say that the Mountaineer defense took him seriously, especially the cornerbacks who would spend the afternoon covering him, Keith Tandy and Brandon Hogan.

Woods came into the game ranking third in the Big East in receptions with 45, which is 5.6 per game, and leading the conference in yards with 743, 92.9 yards a game.

Like Woods, those numbers took a big hit.

Tandy and Hogan held him to three catches for 32 yards, which, no matter what kind of math you do, comes to 60 less yards than his average.

The two were all over the field, each with an interception. For Tandy it was a Big East-leading fifth. He also broke up four passes. Tandy tossed in five solo tackles, Hogan two.

“J.T. asked for his head on a platter,” Tandy said. “I tried, but I couldn’t quite do it.”

It hardly mattered, for the result was that Cincinnati, second in the conference in scoring at 27.4 points a game, managed just 10 points, getting one TD when running back Isiah Pead broke loose on a fourth-and-two play early in the second half, going 53 yards for the score.

“The cornerbacks were outstanding,” said defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, who once again came up with a game plan that absolutely throttled quarterback Zach Collaros and his fleet wide outs. “They shut down three really good players. They took Cincinnati’s bread and butter away.”

Coming into the season, Hogan had the reputation of being the shut-down corner, so teams began testing Tandy. They had a bit of success, but each week you could see him grow in skill and confidence.

“Teams tried to exploit him because Hogan is such a good cover corner,” Neild explained, “but that just made Keith better as the season went along.”

Now it’s become a matter of whether you want to commit suicide with a rope or a gun, but picking on the corners is a tough way to make a living.

If the corners took away Cincinnati’s bread and butter, the rest of the defense took away the meat and potatoes. It is difficult to imagine, but the Mountaineers shut down a team of Cincinnati’s offensive skills completely on third down.

The Bearcats ran 12 plays on third down. They are still looking for a first down out of them.

Oh-for-12 on third down, five sacks, one touchdown and one field goal.

You can say that the Mountaineers failed to bring Thomas the head of D.J. Woods, but they served up another part of the Bearcats’ anatomy on a platter.

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

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