The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

September 3, 2012

WVU defense leaves something to be desired

By Cam Huffman
Sports Editor

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia fans left Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown more than satisfied with the offense Saturday, after the Mountaineers’ 69-34 thrashing of Marshall, and how could they not have been?

WVU rolled up 655 yards of total offense, scored 10 touchdowns and was perfectly balanced with 331 yards rushing and 324 through the air.

The defense, though, was a different story.

Marshall put up 545 yards of its own — an alarming 413 of them in the passing game — and the Herd’s four touchdowns and two field goals would have been more than enough to win against almost any other offense.

It’s not the debut Mountaineer fans were hoping to see from the new 3-4 defense that was installed when Jeff Casteel and much of his staff left for Arizona and Holgorsen brought in co-coordinators Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson to put in a more aggressive attack.

In his postgame press conference Saturday, Holgorsen was willing to admit that the results were far from perfect, but he also said the performance may not have been as bad as it looked.

“They played hard,” said Holgorsen. “We gave up some plays, but we did create two turnovers in the second half, which was good.”

Holgorsen, as well as both coordinators, spoke all summer about turnovers being the key for a Big 12 defense. With offenses as powerful as Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and others, the Mountaineer coaches know their opponents are going to score points. But if WVU can force them into a few mistakes here and there, it should be OK.

Both turnovers against Marshall were huge.

The first, an Isaiah Bruce fumble recovery and return after Terence Garvin stripped the football loose from Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato, covered 43 yards and ended in the end zone and with six points for the Mountaineers.

The second, a Doug Rigg interception and 46-yard return, ended at the Marshall 3-yard line, and backup quarterback Paul Millard threw a touchdown pass to K.J. Myers on the very next play.

“We created some turnovers that led to a couple of touchdowns,” said Holgorsen. “I said in the bowl game (a 70-33 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl last January), you don’t score that many points without being good on all three sides of the ball.”

The other thing that pleased Holgorsen about his defense was its halftime adjustments. Marshall was 6 of 11 on third-down conversions in the opening half, and after the coaching staff made a point of changing that number in the second half, the Herd was just 3 of 8 the rest of the way.

WVU may have also loosened its coverage a little in the second half, allowing the visitors to rack up some inflated numbers. WVU held a 41-10 lead when the clock ticked under 10 minutes in the second half, so much of Marshall’s production came with the game already well in hand.

There were some strong individual performances, as well, like the effort of Bruce, who finished with a team-high 16 tackles as well as the long return, and Garvin, who had 12 tackles, a forced fumble and a sack.

But Holgorsen admitted there’s still plenty of work to be done for his defense to get where he wants it to be.

“As far as how many yards we gave up, and all that, that’s not something we’re going to be too concerned with at this point,” he explained. “The football got kind of sloppy there in the second half.

“It’s more about evaluating every position to see what we’ve got to do between now and two weeks (when WVU plays James Madison at FedEx Field in Landover, Md).

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The third phase of the game, special teams, was somewhat of a roller coaster for the Mountaineers, as well.

Tyler Bitancurt’s first extra point attempt of the game missed the uprights and eventually kept WVU from reaching the 70-point mark for the second game in a row.

The first punt was also a disaster, as Marshall blocked Corey Smith’s third-quarter attempt and got the ball back at the WVU 9-yard line.

The rest of the game was fairly clean. Bitancurt connected on nine other extra point attempts, and Smith’s second punt attempt traveled 45 yards.

“The snapper situation is something that we’re really young at,” said Holgorsen, evaluating the position where sophomore Jerry Cooper is now trying to handle the duties after the graduation of Cody Nutter, who handled the position so well he earned a look from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “That is causing some problems, and we’ll have to get better at it. I think it’s affecting both Tyler and Corey, just having some new people up front that they have to trust.

“But at the end of the day, we won all three sides of the ball.

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WVU quarterback Geno Smith was named the Walter Camp Football Foundation Football Bowl Subdivision National Offensive Player of the Week for his performance Saturday against Marshall.

The senior from Miami threw for four touchdowns and ran in another, racking up 323 yards passing and 65 rushing in three quarters of work. He threw just four incompletions in 36 attempts.

Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner earned Defensive Player of the Week honors from the same group.

Recipients are selected by a panel of national media members each week. This is the ninth year for the awards.

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The early off week is not something Holgorsen and his staff would have preferred, but it became necessary when the Mountaineers moved to the Big 12 and had to work out a schedule.

So the WVU coaches are trying to make the most of the fact that they won’t play another game until Sept. 15.

The Mountaineers will practice early in the week, before the coaches hit the road Friday and Saturday to go recruiting.

Then they’ll begin a normal game week on Sunday.

“We’ll do our recruiting and then get back and prepare for a good JMU team,” said Holgorsen.

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WVU named its weekly award winners Sunday after Saturday’s win over Marshall. Shawne Alson was the offensive champion, Bruce was the defensive champion and Ryan Nehlen was named the special teams champion. Anthony Gutta was the offensive scout champion, while Nana Twum Agyire was the defensive scout champion.

— E-mail: chuffman@