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Casteel says bye week good for Mountaineer defense

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Two weeks ago, Jeff Casteel had a defense that was allowing more than 25 points per game and was barely inside the national top 40 in yards allowed per game.

Two wins and two weeks later, the West Virginia defensive coordinator is working with a team allowing four fewer points per game and ranked No. 18 in total defense.

The 13th-ranked Mountaineers (5-1, 1-0 Big East) are in far more familiar territory now. Young players are fitting in and Casteel is asking more of them and seeing more rewards. Turnovers and sacks are coming with more frequency. A third opponent was just kept from scoring an offensive touchdown.

It has to be a terrible time for an open week. WVU next plays at Syracuse (4-2, 0-1) at 8 p.m. Oct. 21 on ESPN.

"To be honest with you, I think the break probably is good for us right now," Casteel said. "We'll try to get back into some fundamentals with these guys. They have six games under their belts and they know some things need to get better because of what we've seen on film."

The Mountaineers finished the 2010 season ranked No. 3 in total defense, No. 2 in rushing defense, No. 11 in passing defense and No. 3 in scoring defense, which Casteel values above all else.

Yet that team had nose guard Chris Neild, defensive tackle Scooter Berry, linebackers J.T. Thomas and Anthony Leonard, cornerback Brandon Hogan and safeties Robert Sands and Sidney Glover, all who went on to play for NFL teams either in the preseason or the regular season.

Casteel ushered in seven new starters. To do that, he had to give backups and role players into greater responsibility and then fill those holes on the second level with even more new faces.

WVU had a rough second half against Maryland and then two tough halves against No. 1 LSU a week later, but has allowed only one touchdown and four field goals the past two games. The Mountaineers played the past two games without starting linebacker Doug Rigg and the second with defensive end Bruce Irvin not in the starting lineup.

Casteel was about as complimentary as his almost unappeasable approach normally allows after controlling Saturday's second half against Connecticut.

"I thought we got a little bit better as the game went on and I actually saw some kids play a little better," he said. "They did some good things and were a little bit more aggressive, which was good to see. That's what we're asking them to do and we're starting to see improvement in some things."

Two weeks ago, Casteel said he couldn't ask his defense to be as assertive and exotic as he did last year. He reasoned that could have explained why WVU had just one sack and three turnovers in four games.

In the past two games, though, WVU has seven sacks - one for a safety - and six forced turnovers that have been worth 31 points for the offense.

"We were able to do a lit bit more with them than we have been," Casteel said.

For all the credit that's gone to Coach Dana Holgorsen and his offense for making adjustments to outscore opponents 50-7 in the past to second halves, the defense has been just as effective.

The seven points for the opposition came on an interception return touchdown. In 12 possessions after halftime the past two games, Casteel's defense has forced nine punts and two turnovers, allowed just 163 yards and actually outscored the opponent, 2-0, when Irvin and linebacker Jewone Snow combined for a safety in the third quarter against Connecticut.

WVU allowed 178 yards and three field goals in the first half against UConn. Two field goals came on short field and quick changes after Ivan McCartney lost a fumble and the offense failed on a fourth-and-1 at UConn's 42-yard line. The second half saw six punts, the safety and fumble cornerback Pat Miller forced and Snow returned 83 yards to set up the first touchdown in a 23-point third quarter.

"They gave up three field goals and they gave up yardage in the first half, but when you put together a second half like they did, it makes that first half seem like a disaster compared to what the defense did in the second half," Holgorsen said. "It was just a dominant performance by Coach Casteel and those guys. They played well the whole game."

Casteel is targeting a way to best use Irvin, who started the first five games, but had just one sack. He had 1 1/2 sacks Saturday and Casteel said the Mountaineers had their best pressure and pass rush of the season.

The break also gives Rigg time to heal after surgery to repair the wrist he fractured against LSU, but provides Casteel and Snow time to work out that arrangement, too.

Snow has 16 tackles the past two games, his first starts at middle linebacker. Casteel said senior Najee Goode, who had been starting in the middle, is better suited for the strong side, where Rigg was starting. Goode played the strong side last season.

"He's more comfortable there because he played there a little bit longer," Casteel said. "He still takes control with the linebackers and makes a lot of adjustments and calls out there.

"We'd like to get some opportunities for other kids, too, and I think it's important for Jewone to get reps, too, so he can grow and get some more confidence. But it'll be nice to get Doug back to give us a little more depth."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142.


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