Offense calls plays based on its defense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Jeff Mullen's recollection of spring football at West Virginia this past April is pretty vivid and pretty unusual.
"We had limited success for the first time in three years," the offensive coordinator said. "That fired us up a little bit."
The Mountaineers were inspired not because they'd done poorly and thought they could do better, but because that limited success was actually better than what they'd become accustom to against the WVU defense,
"We felt like we might be onto something," Mullen said. "If we can move it against those guys, you've got a chance."
Right then, WVU's offensive initiative for the 2010 season was born. Never did or has the offense aimed for mediocrity or accepted just some success, but at that point it was clear it could be enough to win games more often than not this season.
It's a difficult concept to grasp, particularly at WVU, but it's one the Mountaineers have no difficulty accepting or explaining.
"We score 20, 21 points, I already know it's a victory in the books," said receiver Jock Sanders.
That's about as bold as a hook-and-lateral in the red zone, but that's the Mountaineers. What you might have considered to be conservative in Thursday's 20-6 victory against USF was instead calculated and defined by the defense.
"We call plays based upon how they're playing," Mullen said.
"There are times we've got to score a bunch - not often - but when you get out there and they're doing a really good job, you don't want to give the opponent a short field and you want to eat clock. In the second half, we got that sense and what you saw, I attribute that directly to a defense playing its rear end off."
The Mountaineers had a pedestrian scoring drive that wasn't particularly entertaining and didn't even reach the end zone, but took 6:50 off the clock and ended with a field goal that put the game's final score on the board.
WVU was convinced the Bulls couldn't score 14 points in the final 18 minutes.
When the offense got the ball back, it took no chances and controlled the ball and the game clock and kept B.J. Daniels on the sideline just to be certain.
Against a team that had such success against WVU, there was no need to encourage a shootout. Build a lead. Preserve the lead.
It wasn't pretty, but it was pretty effective and the offense did its part by avoiding a turnover for the second straight game. Had one or two third-down plays clicked and not missed by a yard or two, WVU believes the outcome would have been more decisive.
"This stuff about playing not to lose is a bunch of garbage," Coach Bill Stewart said. "I thought the defense would not give up scores, which is what happened."
The defense was previously asked to hold on until the offense rallied against Marshall and then hang in there while the offense tried to kill clock against Maryland. Even at LSU the Mountaineers put the game on the defense in case the offense could do something.
It's a tricky trust, but the Mountaineers know their defense as well as anyone else. Ask Mullen, for example, how his offense does in practice.
"Terribly," he said. "Their scheme is a nightmare. Their personnel is as good as we'll play in the league. From a coaching staff, you won't find a better four guys on defense. I'm supposed to say that, right? But I mean that."
No one ever intended to go down this road, but it's a road on which the Mountaineers are heading downhill now. For that, they won't apologize, but neither do they want to be convicted of being something they don't believe they are.
"You don't go in trying to score 20, you want to score a half-a-hundred," Mullen said. "That's the goal, but once you get into it, you realize where you are and what the defense is doing. I go into every game thinking we can score 100 points, and if the kids execute it I think we will, but the key is winning. We all know that.
"The thing we don't want to do is rely on one-third of the ball - offense, defense, kicking - and clearly we do not, but when you're in the game you get a certain sense and having an ability to grind it out a little is smart sometimes."
There's a certain bravado involved, too, and it's all blended into the swagger Stewart has invited and encouraged this season. It's one thing for Sanders to say, "I have no doubt about our defense. Twenty points, we win. It's in the book. Book it." It's another for the offensive coaching staff to strategically support such an idea.
It's something else for the defenders to not only embrace the idea, but to endorse it.
"We definitely do," safety Robert Sands said. "We already know once teams get down, it's a wrap. From there, we play tremendous pass coverage and that allows our defensive linemen and linebackers to come downhill and make plays. We can't wait to get the lead."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.