Balance pays off for WVU football team
MORGANTOWN -- Before Friday night's "Backyard Brawl" game against Pitt, West Virginia decided to change a starter on defense and put cornerback Brodrick Jenkins where Pat Miller had been for nine of the first 10 games this season.
In the second quarter, the Mountaineers changed punters after Michael Molinari wobbled a pair of punts for 27 and 22 yards. Those came after a low kick bounced after about the same distance and then rolled its way to 45 yards.
At halftime, WVU had minus-two yards rushing and decided to change its right guard and right tackle. Curtis Feigt, a converted defensive lineman, played tackle and saw the most action of his career and the first since a handful of snaps nine games earlier against Norfolk State.
In the third quarter, the Mountaineers changed their punt returner and put Devon Brown back in place of Tavon Austin. Austin had let one punt hit the turf and hop up and hit a teammate for a turnover and later tried to catch punt, but let it slip through his arms for a second turnover.
At the end, Coach Dana Holgorsen was compelled to spell out exactly what he and his Mountaineers (8-3, 4-2 Big East) are dealing with as they prepare to finish the regular season.
They enter Thursday night's 8 p.m. ESPN game against South Florida (5-6, 1-5) one win and one Cincinnati win away from sharing the Big East title with the Bearcats and Louisville, but also winning the tiebreaker to be the league's BCS representative.
The No. 22 Mountaineers would be fine with that. They'd finally have an identity.
"One thing we've been talking about is figuring out who we are," Holgorsen said. "Once again, we had a dominant defensive performance, but obviously at times throughout the year they haven't been dominant. That's who we are. We're a team that plays well together and gets excited about playing and feeds off each other. We figure out a way to win in the end."
None of WVU changes are nearly as significant as what happened on offense against the Panthers. WVU called 31 plays and 30 run plays against Pitt, the closest the split has been this season and the first time the passes haven't outnumbered the runs by at least seven.
In the second half, Holgorsen called 20 runs and 15 passes.
"The play calls in the second half didn't put as much pressure on the offensive line," Holgorsen said. "Say what you want about the coaches, they did a good job at halftime figuring out a couple of things we needed to do to move forward."
WVU ran the ball 10 times for minus-two yards in the first half, which prompted the change on the offensive line, where Feigt and Quinton Spain replaced Pat Eger and Tyler Rader. The Mountaineers had 115 yards rushing in the second half - two yards below their season average and more than they've had in five full games this season.
Quarterback Geno Smith was sacked three times in the first half and was pressured enough to run on his own a few times. He was sacked once in the second half and wasn't pressured nearly as often.
Holgorsen said the number of run plays and screen passes made it easier for Smith and his protection to handle the Panthers and their pressure, even if it did make the Mountaineers abandon their game plan.
"They were pinning their ears back and we couldn't block them so we had to do some things to take some pressure off," Holgorsen said. "In the second half, we probably threw one or two natural drop-back passes, which is incredibly discouraging. That means we're not doing 60 percent of our offense based on the fact we couldn't block them."
Yet the Mountaineers won by getting away from a passing offense that ranks No. 6 nationally and leads the Big East, and saw Smith and receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin set single-season records against Pitt.
WVU won by trusting the run in the second half, first for 44 of the 60 yards on the first touchdown drive and then for 12 of the final 15 yards on the game-winning touchdown.
If ever there was an indication WVU is learning about itself and how to win, there it is.
"I really can't pinpoint it right now," Smith said. "Sometimes we come out and run the ball and we're lights out. Sometimes we come out and pass the ball and we're lights out. We've yet to put together a complete game on offense, but we're going to continue to work on it.
"Coach Holgorsen is still figuring out who we are and I'm still figuring out who I am in this offense. I think it's progressing and coming along and I still think it's going to be special in time."
The offense hasn't been great, but it's been good enough late in the season, thanks in large part to the defense. WVU has won consecutive games it had to have if it wanted to reach the BCS and scored 24 and 21 points.
That's a change for the Mountaineers, who had had been averaging 38.2 points in the first nine games. The defense was allowing 27.4 points in the first nine and had allowed 49, 31 and 38 before allowing 21 and 20 to Cincinnati and Pitt.
WVU figured out how to win both, first with a defensive touchdown and a blocked field goal against Cincinnati and then by allowing just 80 yards in the second half and getting nine sacks in the final 25 plays against Pitt.
"We were tired of getting criticized," said senior defensive tackle Julian Miller, who tied a school record with four of WVU's 10 sacks against Pitt.
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142.