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WVU football: Are targeting penalties targeting the defense?

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - What West Virginia Coach Dana Holgorsen liked about the penalty given to safety Darwin Cook for targeting a receiver in the loss to Baylor was that the officials reviewed the call and reversed the decision to eject and suspend Cook.

What Holgorsen didn't like was that the Mountaineers were nevertheless penalized 15 yards because Cook did what he's supposed to do. Holgorsen said this week the penalty was "horrendous."

"That was the worst call ever," he said. "It was bad."

That's what people have chosen to remember about Holgorsen's review of the play, but what he said before that ought to have everyone's attention.

"For specific reasons that I won't go into," he said, "they were looking for that."

You could be forgiven for thinking WVU believes its cornerbacks and safeties are being targeted by opponents and officials for the way they hit receivers and running backs on the sideline or the middle of the field.

But an apology isn't necessary. That interpretation is the reality.

"No doubt in my mind that's the case," WVU safeties coach Tony Gibson said. "Look at the Oklahoma State game. It came down to crunch time and No. 81 (Jhajuan Seales) came across the middle and Cook broke on the ball and basically knocked the kid out on the field. They had to stop the game.

"All of that Baylor sees that on film, I'm sure. I don't know if they say, 'Hey, watch this,' to the officials. It's just like us as coaches. If we see a team holding or if we see something going on, we alert the officials to it. I think with our kids being big hitters, they've gotten that reputation and I'm sure that's being put into the ear of the officials."

Whether reality or theory, the timing is interesting. WVU (3-3, 1-2 Big 12) plays host to No. 16 Texas Tech (6-0, 3-0) at noon Saturday at Mountaineer Field. The Homecoming game will be televised by Fox Sports 1.

A year ago, the Red Raiders beat WVU 49-14 and Jace Amaro riddled the defense with five receptions for 156 yards and a touchdown. Linebacker Terence Garvin knocked Amaro out of the game with a clean hit that wasn't penalized. Amaro missed the rest of the regular season.

"There is no revenge plot or anything like that," the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Amaro said.

Yet WVU's perspective leads witnesses to believe officials in charge of the game will be told that the Mountaineers tend to hit hard and that attention must be paid to where they strike the opposition.

"Two Oklahoma State receivers leave our game with concussions. Look at the receiver from Maryland - (Stefon) Diggs, I don't believe, finished the game," West Virginia defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "We've been playing real physical in the secondary and we've got to continue to do that. That's what has to happen against all these spread offenses. They're going to spread you sideline-to-sideline. You can't let them play pitch-and-catch."

Oklahoma State's Josh Stewart told The Oklahoman he suffered a concussion during the loss to WVU while Coach Mike Gundy was vague about what happened to Seales. Maryland receivers Deon Long and Diggs both missed parts of the shutout win against the Mountaineers after hits. Terrapins Coach Randy Edsall addressed Diggs' decreased productivity by saying this week that Diggs "took a ding" against WVU.

Cook is the only defensive player who has been accused of targeting, though he and cornerbacks Ishmael Banks and Travis Bell have been called for additional personal foul penalties after hits either on the field or out-of-bounds.

"I think they do look for it," Patterson said. "I don't know what to tell a kid because you can't become passive or people are going to run all over the place and throw it all over the place. If you can't be physical with them, how do you defend it? That's why I might be selling insurance one of these days if it keeps going that way. How do you defend it?"

The Mountaineers would be wise to figure out how. They surrendered seven pass plays of at least 20 yards and four of 40 or more yards against Baylor. The Bears completed 20 passes for 396 yards.

The Red Raiders are ranked No. 3 in passing offense. They average 34 completions, 54 attempts and 408 passing yards per game and 12.1 yards per catch. They do most of their damage on short and intermediate throws and with the yardage they earn after the catch.

"The biggest thing with an offense like this is when a kid catches the ball, we have to be breaking on the ball so it's catch-hit," Gibson said. "You can't let guys get in space. The hardest thing to do in football is tackle in open space. You need to keep them contained. You need to set backstops with corners or whatever it is to keep the guys inside the hashes and inside the numbers and not let them get on the perimeter on us.

"We want to hit people and we want to be effective when we do it. One thing I'm coaching these guys is not every hit is going to be a big hit and a good tackle this week is getting someone on the ground. That's why we have to play under control because at times, we've been out of control."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at or 304-319-1142. His blog is at


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