AP Sports Writer
CHARLESTON — It was the play that turned the momentum in West Virginia’s favor in the Orange Bowl, when safety Darwin Cook returned a fumble 99 yards for a touchdown against Clemson in the Mountaineers’ 70-33 rout.
That probably wouldn’t have happened if not for the quick hands — or, hand — of linebacker Doug Rigg.
Rigg, his left hand in a cast from a midseason wrist injury, timed it perfectly with his right, reaching into a pile of players at the goal line and stripping the ball from Clemson’s Andre Ellington as he was about to score a go-ahead touchdown.
“I just reached in for dear life,” Rigg said. “And thank God with gloves on was able to stick to the ball a little bit and rip it out. I think that really changed the game. Because after that, their whole body language was defeated.”
Cook got all of the notoriety afterward, grabbing the loose gift, sprinting the length of the field and knocking over the Orange Bowl mascot in the end zone.
That may have been the highlight of the 2011 season for a defense that recovered only nine fumbles and let opposing runners have their way.
With Rigg and Cook returning, the challenges on defense are large for No. 11 West Virginia’s debut season in the Big 12. The Mountaineers lost four of their top seven tacklers and must find some depth and work out the kinks of a new 3-4 scheme.
With changes all around, Rigg said the defense’s mentality remains the same — relentless ball pursuit and getting to the quarterback.
“We know the league we play in, it’s a lot of yards, a lot of points,” Rigg said. “So we’re just trying to come with the attitude they can have all the yards they want, but if we’re forcing four or five turnovers a game, that’s going to cancel out those yards. So we’re coming with the whole get-the-ball-back mentality.”
Something has to be done if No. 11 West Virginia wants a second straight Bowl Championship Series berth.
The Mountaineers allowed nearly 27 points per game last year, including at least 38 in losses on the road to Syracuse and at home to LSU and Louisville. The defense ranked next-to-last in the Big East in points allowed and last in rushing yards allowed.
Shortly after the bowl game, three longtime defensive assistants joined Rich Rodriguez’s staff at Arizona. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen then hired defensive coordinator and safeties assistant Joe DeForest from Oklahoma State, co-coordinator and linebackers coach Keith Patterson from Pittsburgh and defensive line coach Erik Slaughter from Stephen F. Austin.
West Virginia released its depth chart Monday as it prepares for the Sept. 1 opener at home against Marshall.
The coaches have placed a priority on finding depth for a Big 12 schedule that includes five ranked opponents. Among the defensive starters and their immediate backups are 10 freshmen and sophomores. The only freshman starter for now is Karl Joseph at free safety.
“We’re going into a conference that’s pass happy,” said assistant head coach Steve Dunlap. “And there’s teams like Kansas State that will try to pound the ball on you. We’ve got to be built for speed in some instances and sometimes we’ve got to get physical and get bigger on the field. It’s a double-edged sword as far as personnel.”
The theme of this year’s defense is creating movement and confusing the offense. DeForest is leaning on Cook, defensive tackle Will Clarke and cornerback Brodrick Jenkins to be the leaders.
On the line, tackle Clarke and Jorge Wright hope to soften the loss of two other starters, including sack specialist Bruce Irvin. Shaq Rowell will likely get his first start at nose tackle after playing as a backup last year.
When WVU uses four linebackers, converted lineman Tyler Anderson will get the call at the “buck” position.
Besides Rigg, the other starting linebackers are Jared Barber, who is coming off a solid Orange Bowl and started two games as a freshman, and Terence Garvin, who is coming off knee surgery and moves from strong safety.
Joseph enrolled at WVU last winter and was able to learn the defense in spring practice.
“He’s very, very mature,” DeForest said. “He’s very physical. Our staff is excited about what he can bring to this defense. He’s going to make some freshman mistakes — we know that. But he’s definitely going to have an opportunity to play a lot of football. I think he’s up to speed. The hardest thing for freshmen is how long the haul is during the season. And he’s got to learn that.”
Mountaineer defense will be tested by Big 12 attacks
AP Sports Writer
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