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Mike Casazza: Improved toughness key to WVU’s fortunes

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - There remains an everlasting image from last season, though maybe not as memorable to observers as every one of West Virginia's short-yardage failures were to Coach Dana Holgorsen.

The Mountaineers were hoping to score against Oklahoma State and encountered a fourth-and-goal. They tried to run into the end zone but, by the looks of it, ran into a brick wall. A television camera then caught Holgorsen on the sideline saying his offensive linemen were soft as molten fudge cakes. Or something like that. There was no audio.

The point remains that in the ninth game of the regular season, it was pretty clear why the Mountaineers were on their way to a fourth loss in a string of five straight and how a 5-0 start had turned into a 5-5 fiasco.

WVU would get pushed when it was supposed to push. If not when running on fourth-and-goal, then when defending fourth-and-goal against Oklahoma or when guarding 94 yards and a lead against TCU or when trying to come off its own goal line against Syracuse. Twice.

Fixing this has been an offseason focus demonstrated in a variety of ways. Players were made familiar with the traditions of the state and program so that they understand an opponent ought not bully someone representing a people and a place with such pride and history. Recruits were brought in from junior colleges because they're more mature and experienced, but also because they haven't been pampered and don't take such luxuries for granted. New coaches were hired to not only fill vacancies, but to change the voices and messages in the meeting rooms and in practice and to preach a different philosophy.

And that is where Ron Crook comes into this conversation. The newly hired offensive line coach spent the previous two seasons at Stanford, which is to WVU's offense what Sleepytime Tea is to Red Bull. This wasn't an accidental hiring or Holrogsen hurriedly picking someone to quickly end another coaching search.

Crook is not supposed to produce all-conference linemen or enable 1,000-yard rushers, though no one will complain if he does. Crook is supposed to find the way through that wall that appeared before the Oklahoma State goal line. He's supposed to run out the final four minutes of a game and protect a defense that doesn't need to protect a two-point lead one last time. He's supposed to dare defensive ends and linebackers to pick themselves up after a pancake block and go after the quarterback again.

The plays Holgorsen calls and the Mountaineers run will change very little. How they're executed is going to be more than a little new.

"I think it's just the way we're playing the double teams now," presumed starting right tackle Curtis Feigt said. "It's something new and it puts more aggression in the offense. Before Crook was here, we were strictly inside zone, outside zone and more or less in one-on-one situations. Now we're doing double-team stuff - two of us against one of them, three of us against two of them. It puts us in a better, more aggressive situation."

There was nothing wrong with the designs of Crook's predecessor, Bill Bedenbaugh. He wasn't fired. He was hired by an Oklahoma team that prefers zone plays and needed someone to do it better than the guy before him.

WVU's linemen used to block the defenders who crossed their facemasks. If there was an opportunity to double team, the free lineman usually went to the next level to get his hands on a linebacker or a safety. Double teams were somewhat rare and mostly seen when a lineman didn't have a body at the first or second level and instead chose to blindside a defensive lineman who had his hands full with one of the other Mountaineers.

Crook's double teams are by design, power plays dependent upon the defensive front that tells which linemen are supposed to link up and take on predetermined opponents.

"Now we're both engaged on the defensive end, and whichever way he goes, the other guy comes off and he goes up to the next level," Feigt said.

Should the offensive linemen knock the defender down, then both proceed to the second level and strengthen WVU's numerical advantage. And this is about a numerical advantage. It's guards and tackles combining on the side of the play or guards or centers sweeping across to join a teammate. Feigt said there's even a play where the center and the guard on the backside of the play combine to take out a defender on the backside of the play.

"That rarely occurs," he said.

How often it happens doesn't matter. What's important to the 2013 Mountaineers is that it's part of a plan that needed retooling.

"It's a minor adjustment, not a big deal, but it brings a little more of an attitude to it now," Feigt said. "You're not out there by yourself. If the guy to your left is coming off the ball pretty well, you pretty much know you've got a knock down. That little bit of an attitude makes it more fun."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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