LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel kept repeating the stats before and during practice last week: Louisville was leading the Big East in rushing at more than 192 yards a game.
"Man, we heard it all week," linebacker Anthony Leonard said. "If we even looked like we were playing sideways, coach Casteel jumped on us."
It was the coaching equivalent of poking a bear with a stick. The Mountaineers already have one of the nation's top defenses, and when challenged this week, they responded with arguably their most dominating effort of the season in a 17-10 win at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
The Cardinals, who hadn't been held below 100 yards rushing all year, managed only 26 rushing yards on 30 attempts. Star tailback Bilal Powell, already battling an illness, had a sickly 3 yards on four carries. The longest run by a Louisville running back? Six yards. Punter Chris Philpott had 21 of the team's rushing yards on a successful first-half fake.
Backed into a one-dimensional box, the Cardinals had no answer. Their only touchdown came on a defensive fumble recovery in the end zone. That's why West Virginia's slim seven-point lead in the final 24 minutes never felt in danger.
"The defense was just itching to get back out on the field," linebacker J.T. Thomas said. "We wanted to make more plays. We want to go out and dominate people."
Defense has kept the Mountaineers (7-3, 3-2) in the Big East title hunt. Their offense has failed to score more than 20 points in four of the past five games, but West Virginia still hasn't given up more than 21 points in a game this season.
That formula might be good enough to make a BCS game. The Mountaineers don't control their own destiny, but they will play Pittsburgh on Friday with a chance to tie for first place in the conference. Pitt won by an identical 17-10 score at South Florida on Saturday to maintain a one-game lead in the standings. These two defense-heavy teams figure to put the brawl in the Backyard Brawl.
"It's going to be a dogfight," safety Robert Sands said. "If you thought you've seen some hitting this year, you're really going to see some hitting come the day after Thanksgiving."
Pittsburgh will have to find a way to move the ball against Casteel's 3-3-5 scheme, which is playing as well as any defense in recent school history.
It's a unit loaded with seniors and with answers for seemingly everything. Noseguard Chris Neild rarely shows up in the stat column, but he occupies two blockers almost every play and blows up the middle of the line of scrimmage. That allows linebackers and safeties to fill every gap and bring pressure from different angles. There's so much experience in the back end that Casteel can disguise looks without worrying about overloading his players' circuit boards.
And once West Virginia gets the offense into a third-and-long situation, watch out. Sack specialist Bruce Irvin comes in at defensive end and is so fast that most teams have to use two blockers against him. Irvin had two sacks on Saturday, giving him 10 sacks on just 17 tackles this season.
Louisville was just 2-for-13 on third downs Saturday, and the defense has held its last two opponents to just 2-for-25 on third down.
"We're just confusing the heck out of quarterbacks," Thomas said. "We're coming from all over the place, dropping here, dropping there. We're playing man coverage, zone coverage, a little bit of everything. I don't know what [our coaches] are doing in the lab, but they need to keep doing it."
If the Mountaineers could only get their offense playing at the same level, or even in the same neighborhood, they'd be virtually unbeatable in the Big East, and there would be no pressure on head coach Bill Stewart. But the offense struggled in gaining just 261 yards and had four three-and-outs in the second half, proving that last week's 37-point outburst was more a by-product of Cincinnati's inability to stop anybody who can fog a mirror.
"For offensive enthusiasts, that probably wasn't what they came to see," Stewart said. "And for that I'm sorry."
Stewart may have to win the Big East to keep his many critics off his back. Those detractors will be the ones apologizing if this defense leads the Mountaineers to a BCS game.