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November 26, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Proof is in the pounding for WVU’s defense

MORGANTOWN — Dana Holgorsen had just had his first taste of the Backyard Brawl and he was asked for his assessment.

“It was fun,” West Virginia University’s coach said.

If he thinks he had fun, he should have seen Julian Miller, the defensive tackle who had so much to do with the 21-20 victory over Pitt, the one that kept the Mountaineers’ BCS bowl hopes alive and, maybe more satisfactory, knocked arch-rival Pitt out of any chance at getting the bid.

See this was a game in which there were all kinds of records set, but the most startling was that WVU sacked Tino Sunseri, the Pittsburgh quarterback, 10 times.

This is not a record, not like records that were set:

• Tavon Austin set the season record for pass receptions with 82.

• Geno Smith set the season record for passing yards at 3,636.

• Smith set the season record for passing attempts at 448.

• Smith set the season record for pass completions with 291.

All of that is terrible impressive … but 10 sacks, two short of the school record, and nine of them in the final 25 plays of the game.

This comes from a team that had 16 sacks in the previous 10 games.

And now we return to Mr. Julian Miller, who had four of those sacks.

How did he feel?

“Wonderful,” he answered.

Had he ever had four sacks before.

“Never,” he answered. “Never, never, never.”

And then he summed it up better than anyone could.

“I never expected, never imagined this on Senior Night, against Pitt and on my birthday night,” he said.

Four sacks and a victory is a better gift than even “Mortal Combat III.”

And what did Holgorsen think about one player getting four sacks in a game, tying the school record?

“Above average,” he said with a sly smile that hinted he was understating it for emphasis.

In some ways it was shame how the game ended for Miller, for he was last out of the training room and walking with a pronounced limp as he came into the interview area, having injured his right leg on the game’s final play.

On the last play he saw Bruce Irvin sack Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri.

“I thought the game was over,” he said.

But no, the ball had come loose, and a big offensive lineman, one of those guys so large that the No. 76 on his jersey seemed small, was lumbering down the field.

As Miller went to stop him, teammate Will Clarke rolled into him and he was injured … again.

It has been a trying year for Miller, fighting through injuries right from the start. Probably the best all-around defensive lineman, he didn’t start the first two games and played sparingly, coming on as the season wore on.

But now he was part of a defensive effort that was absolutely marvelous, especially as they shut Pitt down to 80 second-half yards, only 30 on the ground, while bouncing Sunseri around like a couple of seals playing with a beach ball.

“We got tired of being criticized,” Miller said of the defense. “We heard they call our defensive line soft, and we took it personal. We felt we were better than them.”

It’s one thing to feel it, another to prove it.

The proof was in the pounding.

“I’m so proud of the guys, the way they went out and fought, the way we played lights out in the second half,” Miller said.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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