- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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West Virginia was the preseason pick to win the Big East, the fashionable choice based on expectations for a high-flying offense that would be difficult to stop.
Indeed, the Mountaineers do have the top offense in the Big East, and just put up over 500 yards on the No. 1 defense in the league. But breakdowns on defense and special teams have been major contributors in an unexpected 2-2 start in Big East play, leaving West Virginia without control of its destiny for a BCS game.
Looking back, it should not come as a big shock that those two areas have been letdowns for the Mountaineers. West Virginia had to replace seven starters on a defense that ranked No. 3 in the nation in 2010, including the interior of their line and three of their top four leading tacklers. Special teams has been a familiar bugaboo for this team, an area that has lacked much consistency going back years.
Still, it probably seemed hard to fathom at the start of the year that West Virginia would fall so hard in sack production. That was an area of strength last season with Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller combining for 23 sacks.
Irvin struggled at times in his role as a starter, so West Virginia is now using him more strategically in pass-rushing downs. He did provide a spark against the Cardinals with two sacks. But right now West Virginia ranks last in the Big East with 14 total sacks after leading the league with 45 last season. Irvin had 14 himself in 2010.
Coach Dana Holgorsen has offered up various reasons why the production is not there, including the fact that quarterbacks are releasing the ball much faster in an effort to avoid the rush.
But the twin losses of Scooter Berry (first-team Big East in 2010) and Chris Neild (second-team Big East in 2010) has had an impact there and in run defense as well, where West Virginia ranks No. 7 in the Big East (129.9).
The linebackers also have been an area of concern. Outside of Najee Goode, nobody has been consistent and coaches have shaken up the starting lineup in order to get more production. Nearly every linebacker that has played has not had starting experience until this season.
"I don't know that it's a lack of experience," defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said after the loss to Louisville. "It's a lack of understanding how important every play during the week is. When you're playing young people, you don't get do overs. The kids they're getting better but those are the things they have to understand. You have to make plays when you get your opportunities."
Perhaps the biggest illustration of where things have gone wrong for the defense in losses to Syracuse and Louisville was on first down. West Virginia simply put itself in bad situations. The goal is to hold teams to 3 yards or less on first down.
Against Syracuse, West Virgina allowed 6.9 yards; against Louisville, 6.4. That creates easier third-down situations for opponents to convert and ultimately makes teams more difficult to stop. The Cardinals had six first-down plays that went for 10 yards or more.
Special teams has haunted West Virginia, too. Holgorsen switched from Corey Smith to Michael Molinari at punter but may make another switch again after Molinari averaged 20.7 yards a punt against Louisville. One went for 12 yards; another went for 11 and set up a Cardinals touchdown.
Meanwhile, West Virginia had a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown for the first time since 2004. In a loss to Syracuse, it allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown to Dorian Graham to help turn the tide of the game. The same happened when Morris Claiborne returned a kickoff for a score in the third quarter for LSU.
Holgorsen knows you cannot be good in one phase without being good in the other two. But he also pointed to another reason for the recent struggles.
"We didn’t have any energy – our sidelines were dead, and there wasn’t a whole lot of excitement when things did happen for us," he said Sunday night. "So it’s a problem that’s being addressed, and we’re going to try hard to fix it."
How? "You talk about it and get a whole bunch of coaches and players and seniors working towards one goal and right now that just doesn’t exist," he said.
Given the state of the Big East year in and year out, it would be foolish to count out any team that has two conference losses. West Virginia has won a share of the conference with a 5-2 record in 2007 and 2010. But these problems must be addressed for the Mountaineers to have any chance.