It had been a puzzling couple of weeks for the West Virginia University defense as they played their way into the new season. That they were an accomplished group there was no doubt, a shutout in the opener and a second game at Marshall marred only by a pair of breakaway plays.
But this was a group that was supposed to eat quarterbacks for breakfast, picking the meat from the bones and leaving the leftovers for whatever kind of scavenger preys on quarterback remains.
That was what was supposed to be.
Reality was that the only time the defenders touched an opposing quarterback was after the game when they were shaking hands. Two games had produced zero sacks, and that was sort of playing on the Mountaineer mentality.
This was especially true of one Bruce Irvin, a junior college addition who came with a reputation for being so fast around the corner that no college offensive lineman could hold him. He had sacked 16 in his junior college season a year ago in California, and he saw no reason why he couldn’t do the same on a bigger stage.
Yet there he was, without so much as one sack to his name.
This was something his teammates reminded him of quite often, all in the good fun that is locker room banter.
“We were getting on him a lot,” defensive tackle Scooter Berry admitted.
“They gave me some pressure. I was supposed to be the sack master, and I didn’t have any,” Irvin said.
But as fast as you could say Jamarr Robinson, that all turned around Saturday in West Virginia’s 31-17 victory over Maryland.
West Virginia had Maryland completely confused and confounded, not knowing who was coming and where they were coming from as the Mountaineers made up for lost time with eight sacks.
It began with a most unexpected sack, that coming from nose guard Chris Neild, whose main responsibility is to hold down the fort in the middle.
“I certainly didn’t expect to have the first sack of the year,” he would say.
But there is one defensive call where he can freelance a little.
“I like to blitz, and there’s a call that lets me move around,” Neild explained. “They forced him into me.”
All of a sudden the sacks began falling like leaves on a cool autumn day, one after another until Berry had two, Neild had his, Anthony Leonard had one, Julian Miller had one and Irvin … he broke loose with three sacks.
“We need a nickname for him,” Neild said.
In reality, by that time Irvin had given himself the nickname of “Sack Master.”
And as the sacks came, the crowd roared “BRUCE! BRUCE!”
“It sounds like BOO! out there,” Irvin said, “but I know it’s Bruce.”
Irvin’s first sack was one of the all-timers. If he was frustrated, he took it out on young Danny O’Brien, a redshirt freshman with a reputation as a passer. He’s been brought into the game just before the end of the half and was going to throw deep on his first play when he was introduced to Mr. Irvin.
It was, shall we say, a rude introduction, for Irvin came around the corner from his blind side, hit him with a tooth-rattling hit that separated him from the football … and his senses.
O’Brien had to feel like he was on the moon, and Irvin, how did he feel after his first sack?
“I felt like I was standing on Mars, or something. It felt so good,” Irvin answered.
Irvin’s complete day included three sacks, four tackles, one forced fumble and one pass breakup.
And even then he may not have been the best player on the defense, for Berry had one of his best games ever at WVU with four tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble.
“I guess you could say that was my best game statistically,” Berry said.
In truth, other than two plays, both passes that beat sophomore Pat Miller, filling in for the suspended Brandon Hogan, for TDs of 60 and 80 yards, WVU was stifling.
For the first time since 2006, when WVU held Pitt to minus-40 rushing yards while also recording eight sacks, the defense held the Terps to minus yardage rushing. With the sacks, Maryland rushed for minus-10 yards net and their leading rusher was Davin Meggett with just 30 yards.
As fast as the Mountaineer defense was on this day, they are going to have to supercharge it for their next game when they travel to LSU on Saturday night, where the Tigers will be prowling and where speed is king.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.