By Cam Huffman
The final play of Saturday’s Gold-Blue Spring Game at Mountaineer Field saw the WVU defense hold the offense out of the end zone on a 2-point conversion to preserve a 35-33 victory for the Blue team — the defense in an offense versus defense battle.
A closer look at the modified scoring system following the game made the final score 41-33 in favor of the Blue. But no matter the score, any victory was a good one for the WVU defense, which finished the 2012 season as one of the worst in the country in nearly every statistical category.
“There were some good things out there, obviously,” said WVU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who took over for Joe DeForest after one season with DeForest in charge. “I thought the first group executed pretty well out of our base scheme. They did the things we like to emphasize. From what I saw on the field, I was pleased.
“The kids get tired of going back-and-forth with each other. They’re competitors, and they’ll have fun with (beating the offense).”
The new-look Mountaineer defense gave up scores on just six of 21 possessions, and the first-team defense allowed only a pair of field goals, both on drives that started with the defense backed up.
“Those kids want to be great,” said new safeties coach Tony Gibson, back for his second stint at WVU after coaching with Rich Rodriguez at Michigan and Arizona, with a short stop at Pitt in between. “We don’t want to be good, we want to be great.
“I think our kids’ confidence is rebuilt. They’ve had a good spring. I don’t know how many series we played with the ones, but we did not give up a touchdown. That helps to end spring on a good note.”
The defense, which was awarded points for offensive drives that ended without points, three-and-outs and turnovers, recorded six sacks, while Travis Bell picked off a Ford Childress pass.
The offense, meanwhile, showed some flashes of the high-octane Dana Holgorsen offenses of the past, but it also bogged down at times.
The starting quarterback battle, which captured the attention of most of the 8,000 fans in attendance, was a tight one. Junior Paul Millard completed 16-of-27 passes for 185 yards and three touchdowns. He was sacked four times. Childress, a redshirt-freshman, was 14-of-21 for 169 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked twice.
His 65-yard scoring strike to sophomore wide receiver Jordan Thompson, though, gave the Gold offensive squad its first points early in the second quarter.
“I think today went pretty well for us,” said Childress. “We moved the ball pretty well. But we took too many sacks and got ourselves in bad situations that way. We had a lot of positives, but there were some nagging negative plays.”
Thompson was the top playmaker, catching six passes for 123 yards and three touchdowns, while Kevin White caught five passes for 72 yards, including an impressive 46-yard screen on a third-and-short where he lost ground before making defenders miss and scampering into the end zone.
“It looked to me like we should have handed it off, because I didn’t think we had leverage on the screen,” said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. “But getting the ball to him is never a bad thing. We’re trying to train our (quarterbacks) to get the ball to the outside guys a little more. He made a great play. There’s no doubt about it.
“Obviously, he’s what you want a guy to look like,” continued Dawson in his evaluation of the junior college transfer. “He’s a big, fast, physical guy. He just needs to be consistent every day. This is his first spring in the offense. He’s a talented guy, but he needs a lot more reps.”
WVU’s running game netted just 66 yards on 29 carries, but it showed productivity at times. The quarterbacks lost 48 yards on plays that were ruled sacks — no contact was allowed on the quarterbacks — skewing the final numbers.
Dustin Garrison, who was hobbled for much of the 2012 season after offseason knee surgery, carried the ball seven times for 58 yards, and junior college transfer Dreamius Smith gained 38 yards on seven totes. Wendell Smallwood, a freshman from Delaware, gained 25 yards on his seven chances.
“Our running game was limited on purpose,” said Dawson. “We didn’t run any tight end sets. We put a big emphasis on the run game throughout the spring. Today, we wanted to put a lot of pressure on the quarterbacks. We wanted the ball in their hands so they could go through their reads, have an internal clock in their heads and get rid of the ball.”
One of the other big questions this season is the kicking game, which produced mixed results Saturday. Josh Lambert missed his first two field goal attempts from 41 and 48 yards away, but he rebounded with two second-half field goals from 39 and 47 yards out.
The spring game concluded the spring practice session. Holgorsen said his team accomplished a great deal, but he added that there’s still a long way to go.
“After 14 practices and going 75 plays of live football, you want it to resemble football,” he said. “I think it resembled football, but I don’t think it resembled high-level football.”
The next 14 weeks, Holgorsen said, will be spent on individual improvement for the players, while the coaching staff will hit the recruiting trail.
“The assistants will be out there recruiting for the next five weeks,” he said. “Then it turns to camps, which we have two weeks of, and then we’ll have some vacation time.
“We will have to keep up with our guys and hold them accountable for what they need to be doing as a student-athlete. That never ends.”
WVU will open up the 2013 regular season on Aug. 31 at home against William & Mary.
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