By Cam Huffman
It’s hard to argue that the 3-3-5 defense that Jeff Casteel helped install at West Virginia University during the days when Rich Rodriguez roamed the sidelines — and kept in place for three seasons under Bill Stewart and one with Dana Holgorsen — didn’t serve the Mountaineers well.
While Rodriguez’s spread and Holgorsen’s Air Raid attacks have received the bulk of the credit for what the Mountaineers have done in recent seasons — three BCS Bowl victories in seven years — the stoppers on the other side have also played a big role.
The 2005 WVU defense ranked 15th in the nation in total defense and 13th in points allowed, and it was a big reason why the Mountaineers ended that campaign with a Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia.
Two years later, the 2007 WVU defense ranked eighth in scoring defense and seventh in total defense, and, no big surprise, the Mountaineers again won a BCS game, topping Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
Last season, Casteel’s crew wasn’t ranked as high in total defense — coming in 33rd out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision squads — but a deeper look into the 2011 campaign tells a different story and helps explain the Orange Bowl win.
While Holgorsen’s offense — yes, the same one that posted 70 against Clemson — sputtered down the stretch, averaging just 25 points per game in the final three regular season contests, the defense rose to a new level.
In a 24-21 win over Cincinnati, a 21-20 triumph over Pitt and the Big East championship-clinching 30-27 win at South Florida, WVU’s defense gave up just 24 points per contest and gave the Mountaineers a chance, one of which they took full advantage.
But without Casteel’s defense shutting down a game-winning drive for the Bearcats at Cincinnati, the Mountaineers harassing Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri to the tune of 10 sacks or Najee Goode stripping USF quarterback B.J. Daniels of the football with three minutes to play and WVU trailing the Bulls, there would have been no Orange Bowl, no bowl record for points scored and no billboards on I-79 featuring the number 70.
But these are different days in Morgantown. Casteel is gone, moving on to Arizona to join back up with Rich Rodriguez, and he took his 3-3-5 scheme with him.
With the Mountaineers entering a new league, the Big 12, and a new style of football, Holgorsen decided it was the perfect time to put his own stamp on the WVU defense.
Holgorsen hired Joe DeForest from Oklahoma State and Keith Patterson from — swallow, Mountaineer fans — Pitt to run a new-look Mountaineer defense that will incorporate elements of both the 3-4 and 4-3 defensive fronts.
The new concepts will be a point of emphasis over the next couple of weeks, as the Mountaineers jump full speed into preseason camp, but after a spring of working with the co-coordinators, redshirt-junior defensive end Will Clarke said he and his teammates are getting the defense down.
“It wasn’t really that hard of a change,” said the Pittsburgh native, who had nine tackles in the win over USF last year. “Guys have transitioned into the new scheme pretty easily. We have just been trying to master the new defense. We have just been using our technique and going over different disguises we will be using in games.”
Clarke’s assignment may be easier than others. At his position, the 6-foot-6, 269-pounder said not much changes, regardless of the scheme.
“For the most part, it is the same for me as a defensive end, because you are still rushing the passer and playing the run,” he said.
For senior linebacker Josh Francis, the change is a little more evident. He’ll play the buck linebacker position in the new defense, and he admitted that it’s been a change.
“The 3-3-5 is a defense that engages you with linemen a lot,” he explained. “I never engaged with linemen on every single play like I did last year. With this defense, you have a little more freedom. You are able to show off your craft. This defense and these coaches allow you to showcase your abilities on every snap.
“In the 3-3-5, a linebacker essentially ended up being a defensive lineman, because he had to take on blocks to open things up for safeties. If that was the way it was in the NFL, a lot of linebackers wouldn’t have long, successful careers.”
The biggest overall difference this year may be attention to the pass. The Big 12 is known for its offense, and most of the production comes through the skies.
“We are always going to be working on third down, because the Big 12 is a passing league,” said Clarke.
But don’t expect WVU to ignore the run, either.
Francis, a 6-foot-1, 221-pound Damascus, Md., native, said he takes pride in his ability to bring down opposing ball carriers.
“I think I have played against the run pretty well during my career,” said the junior college transfer, who saw action in eight games last year, his first in a Mountaineer uniform after transferring in from Lackawanna Junior College. “I played against LSU last year and was able to make about 10 tackles against a team with a 285-pound fullback. My weight was lower back then.
“Either way, that will not make a difference. I believe I can stand in there against running teams. It is up to the coaches to decide how we are going to attack that.”
The Mountaineer defenders seem comfortable flying under the radar and letting Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey make all the headlines. But as has been proved in the past, the team will only go as far as the defense will take it.
“It will be a dual effort,” said Clarke. “If we are going to win, it has to come from both sides.”
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