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Defense owns second half for West Virginia

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- West Virginia defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich told his players he had a nightmare this week. He envisioned Connecticut running a sweep to Donald Brown, who then cut back across the field for a touchdown.

Kirelawich needn't have worried about that dream coming true. If the Mountaineers have counted on one thing this season, it's their defense.

The latest example of that came in Saturday's 35-13 win over UConn. They held Brown to a season-low 82 yards, the first time all year the nation's leading rusher failed to surpass the 100-yard mark. They came up with five turnovers and pitched a shutout in the second half for the fifth time in their past six games.

This is a defense that returned only four starters and saw its top tackler from 2007, linebacker Reed Williams, shut it down after only two games with shoulder problems. Eight of Saturday's defensive starters are freshmen or sophomores. Yet West Virginia leads the Big East in scoring defense, allowing just 14.8 points per game.

"We know they're not going to give in, even though we're not putting up 70 points," quarterback Pat White said. "They're always going to fight."

Opponents better throw their haymakers early, because the Mountaineers almost never give up points late. On Saturday, UConn came out strong, scoring on three of its first four drives and fumbling on the West Virginia 30-yard line on the lone failed attempt. Brown was patiently waiting for seams and piled up 77 yards in the first half, including a 21-yard score. West Virginia whiffed on some arm tackles.

"We really didn't do anything except overpursue some plays," defensive lineman Scooter Berry said. "We got out of gaps trying to play somebody else's responsibility. Coach just sat us down and told us to play our gaps."

The Mountaineers dodged a bullet to open the second half, when UConn quarterback Cody Endres and receiver Kashif Moore barely missed hooking up for a long touchdown pass. After that it was lockdown time.

The Huskies had only 72 yards in the second half and committed four turnovers. Brown lost a fumble and had four carries in the second half for 5 yards. His 19 carries for the day were nearly 10 fewer than his season average. Every time he tried to stretch a run out or cut back like in Kirelawich's nightmare, West Virginia's speed cut him off.

"Our defense was very tenacious in the second half," head coach Bill Stewart said. "They turned the whole ballgame around."

Once UConn fell behind and had to throw, the game was effectively over. Endres was picked off three times. Cornerback Brandon Hogan, a converted wide receiver, had two of those interceptions.

"We had a game plan all week to get on top early and make them pass the ball," Hogan said. "That's something they weren't used to doing."

It took a while for that plan to take effect, but West Virginia's defense is like bad fast food -- it's always better late.

The Mountaineers haven't allowed a second-half point in their last three games and have yielded only 28 points after halftime all year. Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel doesn't take credit for any brilliant halftime adjustments.

"I think our kids needed to feel them out a little bit today," he said. "That's been their M.O. They've done a good job adjusting themselves as the game goes on."

Berry had his own explanation for the second-half dominance: "That means we're in shape."

And with only three seniors, this defense should be in good shape for a long time.

"They're not young kids anymore; we're eight games into the season," Casteel said. "They've gotten better and better as the year has gone on."