Through the course of a long and winding season, West Virginia’s defense had more ups and downs than coordinator Jeff Casteel would have liked.
The Mountaineers gave up 31 points to both Maryland and Rutgers, 38 to Louisville, 47 to LSU and 49 to Syracuse.
But without a string of timely big plays by its defense, West Virginia wouldn’t be playing in the Orange Bowl.
They held Pittsburgh to 80 second-half yards in a 21-20 Backyard Brawl victory, and then came up with a critical late-game takeaway that set up a game-winning field goal in a 30-27 win over South Florida that clinched a share of the Big East title.
Casteel said this week that his unit’s strength has been its ability to persevere.
“What I like is the way these guys compete and hang in there, and the way they’ve made plays at critical times to change games and win games,” said Casteel, who is working for his third Mountaineer head coach since being hired by Rich Rodriguez in 2001. “I think back to the Maryland game, when we made the plays we needed to win the game. It’s not always as pretty as you’d like, but I have a lot of respect for guys for hanging in there in tough times.
“It’s easy to play well when you’re just knocking the dog out of everybody, but when you’re taking some punches, it’s good to get back up and land some blows yourself. That’s what these guys have been able to do this year.”
When the Mountaineers have struggled, it’s usually been because of poor tackling, Casteel said.
“We just weren’t real consistent,” he said. “Our tackling leaves a lot to be desired at times, and that’s what gets us in trouble. A lot of times we’ve had an opportunity to make some plays and just didn’t do it.
“I wish I had the answers. We just try to work the fundamentals. To win games, you have to get people on the ground. When you’re not doing that, it comes down to fundamentals. Guys aren’t in the right spots, and we just have to point those things out and get better at it.”
Casteel said that while the Mountaineers badly needed some time off to heal nagging injuries, the month-long gap between the final game of the season and the Orange Bowl creates some challenges.
“Bowl games are tough,” he said. “You have some time off, and you need some time off, but you lose a little of your rhythm. You’re used to playing every week, and then you have to wait about a month to play this one. Your leadership is critical – those guys’ ability to keep guys focused and work hard in practice and do the things you need to do to stay ready to play.”
Casteel said at midweek that the Mountaineer coaches were “just starting on Clemson.”
“We got the film the other day and we’ve gotten it broke down, but the coaches have been out on the road recruiting, so it’ll be a process,” he said. “But you don’t have to watch a whole lot of film to understand that they’ve got playmakers all over the field. They’re very, very talented and deep, and they’ve got guys who can run.
“We’ll have our work cut for us. Sometimes it can ruin your holidays getting ready for these types of games. It’s going to be a challenge to defend them.
“Clemson does a lot of different things formation wise,” Casteel added. “They don’t make it easy on you. There’s a reason why they’ve won 10 games and are in the Orange Bowl.”