Not since John F. Kennedy saved his crew on PT 109 has the number had such significance.

109.

1-0-9.

Say it out loud:

“One-hundred-and-nine.”

Make no doubt the number has been said over and over by the players who make up the West Virginia University defense, for that is where the team ranked in pass defense last year.

And as much as they said it, the coaching staff said it more often.

“It was no secret we did not play well in the secondary at times, especially in the second half of the season. It had to be addressed — from schemes to personnel. Everything.” said coach Rich Rodriguez.

Forget the Alamo.

“Remember 109.” That’s become a theme for the Mountaineers this season.

From the moment East Carolina passed for 276 yards against WVU to Louisville’s 354 yards to Cincinnati’s 310 yards to Pitt’s 341 yards to South Florida’s 274 yards on 22-of-30 passing to Rutgers’ 278 yards on 19-of-26 passing to Georgia Tech’s 326 yards on 19-of-29 passing by a second-string quarterback in the Gator Bowl.

True, WVU lost only two of those games and, as cornerback Larry Williams said this week during football interviews: “You can throw 300 yards, but if we win I’m OK with that.”

In the end, everyone knows, score is kept with points, not yards, be they passing, rushing or returns, but letting a team go up and down the field the equivalent of three times from goal line to goal line and then some makes it tougher to come out ahead in points.

Make no doubt it bothered everyone.

“Every game it seemed like it was getting worse and worse,” admitted cornerback Vaughn Rivers, now one of the senior leaders in the much maligned secondary.

“We know that coming into this season, and it’s something we kept in the back of our minds. It’s going to be motivation for us we have in the back of our heads every day.”

“I think last year was the biggest learning experience I’ve had since I’ve been here. We won a lot of games, but for us to win a lot of games and see that our defense was that terrible, especially in the back end, I think there’s nothing to do but improve,” added safety Eric Wicks, another senior.

“Overall we didn’t do what we said we would do,” admitted Williams.

The pass defense problems reached critical mass when the Mountaineers faced Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl.

While Tech’s Reggie Ball, a senior quarterback, was suspended for the game, spectacular wide receiver Calvin Johnson was not, and he caught nine balls for 186 yards and two touchdowns, despite getting special attention from the secondary.

Then, to add insult to injury, nearly every pass he caught was played over and over by ESPN leading up to the NFL draft. Day after day, show after show, there was Johnson, shaking off safety Quinton Andrews or beating cornerback Antonio Lewis.

It reached the stage of embarrassment, although the WVU players and coaches are more than willing to give Johnson his due as one of the best receivers this side of Jerry Rice.

“Where’d he go in the draft? No. 2,” said Rodriguez. “He was pretty good.”

“Calvin is a great athlete. I think he’s going to be a great player in the NFL,” Williams said.

What Johnson did do was drive home the point that WVU’s 3-3-5 stack defense, while spectacular against the run, needed to be adjusted for the coming season in areas of both personnel and scheme.

Much that is new has been put in, and kept in secret better than America has ever kept any of its state secrets.

Some of the changes are subtle and will escape notice unless you are a player or coach studying film.

Some less subtle.

“There are some things you can see from the stands. We have a two-high safety now. It used to be we had only one safety back. That the fans can note. Other than that, the basic naked eye won’t see it,” Rivers said.

More than anything, the philosophy seems to have changed some. In the past, WVU’s approach was to give up stuff in front of the deep backs while protecting deep on the theory a team couldn’t go down the field like that without making a mistake.

For the most part that worked, except teams seemed able to still find deep holes in the defense.

“Last year one of things we didn’t do right was to communicate. There weren’t enough guys getting on each other at the different levels. The defensive backs are now getting on the D-linemen; the D-linemen are getting on us. Everything is coming together real good,” said Rivers.

There is also a battle for jobs going on. No one other than Wicks seems set as a starter with five players competing at cornerback. Add Ryan Mundy, a transfer started at Michigan who was granted an extra year’s eligibility by the NCAA, and the personnel now seems different.

The five are Rivers, Williams, Lewis, Kent Richardson and Guesly Dervil.

And then there’s an intriguing class of freshmen who have come on, making corner “the most competitive position we have,” according to Rodriguez.

“They are probably the smartest group we’ve had. Gibby (defensive backs coach Tony Gibson) gives us a little test. Usually everyone gets everything wrong. They had guys getting everything right,” Rivers said.

Wicks had the final word on why the pass defense should improve this year.

“We’ll be a lot better because of physicality now. We’re going to be a lot more physical, do a lot more disguising and showing different things,” Wicks suggested.

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

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