MORGANTOWN, W.Va. ? West Virginia used to win despite its defense. Now the Mountaineers are winning because of it.
Junior quarterback Pat White and a high-powered rushing attack remain the biggest reasons West Virginia is one win away from playing for a national title, but that electrifying offense has overshadowed the Mountaineers' remarkable transformation on the other side of the ball.
Last season, West Virginia ranked 109th in the nation in pass defense and allowed 193 points in its final six games. This season, the Mountaineers have given up more than 24 points just once.
For all the attention USF and Cincinnati have received in the Big East for their defenses, West Virginia is the team that has recorded the most sacks and allowed the fewest points in the Big East. The Mountaineers actually are ranked higher in total defense (sixth) than total offense (11th) as they head into their regular-season finale Saturday against Pittsburgh.
"We came out and just wanted to make a statement to ourselves, to let ourselves know that we're a better defense than we were last year," senior strong safety Eric Wicks said.
They certainly have proved that to themselves and to the rest of the Big East, even if the news hasn't necessarily spread to the rest of the country. The national perception of West Virginia remains that it has a potent offense that needs to score at least 30 points to beat a quality nonconference opponent.
The Mountaineers' late-season struggles last year left quite an impression. Louisville's Brian Brohm, Pittsburgh's Tyler Palko and Rutgers' Mike Teel had season-highs in passing yards against West Virginia during the second half of the 2006 campaign. Georgia Tech's Taylor Bennett threw three touchdown passes against West Virginia in the first 26 minutes of the Gator Bowl, then didn't throw his third touchdown pass of the 2007 season until his 10th game of the year.
WVU's defense has spent this entire season working to regain the respect it lost last season.
"They've played with a chip on their shoulder," defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said after the Mountaineers forced three turnovers in a 66-21 demolition of Connecticut last Saturday. "Here we are - the 11th game of the season and we're still talking about last year, you know what I mean? It's time to move on."
It's actually a similar group in some respects, which might help explain the Mountaineers' success. WVU returned seven of its eight top tacklers from a year ago, which gave the Mountaineers plenty of reason to expect improvement.
West Virginia didn't make many changes to its scheme or personnel. The change is in the attitude.
"The difference between last year and this year is we're playing as a team and we're executing," junior linebacker Mortty Ivy said. "Last year there were a lot of mental mistakes; now everybody's on the same page. We just go out there and fly around."
And they're usually flying toward the ball. WVU has forced 31 turnovers to rank fifth in the nation in that category. The Mountaineers have 19 takeaways during their six-game winning streak and have forced at least two turnovers in each of those contests.
"That's been a trademark of our defense all year,'' senior free safety Ryan Mundy said. "We always seem to have players who are around the ball.''
Mundy has a lot to do with that. The former Michigan safety took advantage of the NCAA's since-overturned graduate transfer rule to play for West Virginia this year. He has turned into this year's version of Ryan Smith.
Smith played for Florida last season after graduating from Utah and picked off eight passes to help the Gators win the national championship. Mundy has boosted West Virginia's title hopes by picking off three passes and recovering three fumbles.
WHAT A TURNAROUND
This look at WVU's statistics indicates how much its defense has improved since last season. Their NCAA rankings for each category in the past two seasons is listed below. The numbers in parentheses are averages per game except for the takeaway category, which lists the season total.
Pass efficiency defense
Tackles for loss
But he's not the only big-play guy on West Virginia's defense.
WVU ranks 12th in the nation in sacks, thanks mainly to senior defensive end Johnny Dingle (17 tackles for loss, eight sacks) and senior linebacker Marc Magro (12 tackles for loss, eight sacks). Ivy has collected six sacks while also forcing three fumbles.
"I think our guys are playing with more confidence. ? They believe in what we're doing," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. "It seems there's always one guy or somebody making a play when we have to. They're trusting what the coaches are trying to put in."
West Virginia's coaches aren't the only ones who have noticed the difference. Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom had no trouble pointing out what distinguishes this year's West Virginia team from last year's squad.
"Their offense is no different," said Croom, whose team coughed up three fumbles in a 38-13 loss to the Mountaineers last month. "Their defense is faster, and they have more speed. They look like how they did two years ago."
Croom's comment shows that West Virginia traditionally has played better defense than its reputation suggests. Two years ago, West Virginia went 11-1 and won the Sugar Bowl while ranking in the top 15 in total defense and scoring defense. While that season is remembered mainly for the breakthrough performances by White and tailback Steve Slaton, the Mountaineers allowed 15 or fewer points in eight of their 12 games that year.
WVU didn't really start getting dismissed as a poor defensive team until last season's struggles. The Mountaineers are proving this season that label wasn't justified.
"This is the expectation," Mundy said. "This is the level we set for ourselves. We're definitely achieving it now. Everyone likes to talk about last year's defense and how that was disappointing, but I think that was a great motivational tool for this year's defense."
Of course, there's still reason for skepticism about West Virginia's defensive resurgence. Louisville is West Virginia's only regular-season opponent ranked among the nation's top 25 in total offense. The Mountaineers' relatively light schedule leads to speculation about whether West Virginia could contain the more explosive offenses in the Southeastern Conference, Big 12 or Pac-10.
Wicks understands the doubts and admits West Virginia's defense still has room for improvement before it can be considered elite.
"I think there's still a wait-and-see attitude," he said. "Some guys feel like we play in spurts, like we do. I feel like we are a pretty good defense that can play against a lot of teams in the country, but we still haven't shown greatness."
They're seeking an opportunity to achieve greatness Jan. 7 in New Orleans.