NCF Nation: Jorge Wright

Pitt dominating West Virginia early

November, 25, 2011
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Pitt has dominated West Virginia up front, and that is a big reason why the Panthers are up 14-0 after the first quarter.

Special mistakes haven't helped West Virginia, either. Jorge Wright was called for a personal foul on a missed 38-yard field goal by Kevin Harper, giving the Panthers new life. They ended up scoring their first touchdown on that drive, after successfully converting a fourth down.

Pitt scored its second touchdown after a Michael Molinari punt traveled 22 yards and gave the Panthers the ball at their own 48. Still, the Panthers have pushed West Virginia around on both lines, opening up running lanes for the offense and harassing Geno Smith on defense.

Both Pittsburgh touchdowns have come on the ground. Pitt has 62 yards rushing in the early going. The success on the ground has enabled the play-action to work well, and Pitt already has 123 total yards. West Virginia has failed to convert on third down (0-for-4). Aaron Donald notched his 10th sack of the season, and the Panthers have several other hurries and tackles for loss.

West Virginia is generally a slow-starting team, so we shall see how the Mountaineers respond.
We continue our look at team position rankings today, and start up with the defense. First up are the guys in the trenches, the defensive line. This has got to be one of the strongest positions from team to team in the Big East. Four different teams could probably make an argument for the No. 1 spot. There are lots of standout defensive ends and tackles in the league, but I also am judging experience, returning starters and depth here.

[+] EnlargeKendall Reyes
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaUConn's Kendall Reyes' had 2.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss last season.
1. Connecticut. The Huskies have good players and depth this season, and get the nod as the top line in the league. Defensive end Jesse Joseph and defensive tackle Kendall Reyes return. Reyes turned down a shot at the NFL for one more season, and is the only first-team Big East selection on the defensive line returning to his team. Both Reyes and Joseph are defensive player of the year candidates. Five players return who started seven or more games last season, giving the Huskies plenty of experience along the line.

2. Pittsburgh. The Panthers lose defensive player of the year Jabaal Sheard and are switching to the 3-4. But they do have another candidate for that award in Brandon Lindsey. We have to count him half here, though, because he is transitioning to the new hybrid defensive end/linebacker position. Still, the Panthers have solid players in Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein on the line, along with depth in Aaron Donald, Tyrone Ezell, Kaynin Mosley-Smith and Bryan Murphy. Even without Sheard, this is one of the strongest lines in the league.

3. West Virginia.You have got to love the tandem of Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin, who combined for 23 sacks last season. They are the best returning tandem in the league. But they are ranked here for a few reasons. First, how does Irvin transition from spot player to full-time starter? Will he be as effective as last season, when he led the league with 14 sacks? How does Miller transition to defensive tackle? Losing noseguard Chris Neild is a huge blow, too. Josh Taylor is penciled in to start, depending on what happens with Jorge Wright. Junior college transfer Shaq Rowell will be in the mix, too, with high expectations.

4. USF. The Bulls might be losing three starters, including Terrell McClain and Craig Marshall, but this unit has the potential to be even better than the group in 2010. Hopes are high for Ryne Giddins to step in at defensive end and be an immediate difference-maker. Cory Grissom and Keith McCaskill are veterans inside, but if there is one question mark here it is depth at tackle. True freshman Elkino Watson could make a big impact.

5. Louisville. Three starters return, and there is potential for this group to be very productive. Defensive end Greg Scruggs is in line for a breakout season. Eight linemen have starting experience, so there is depth, though there is youth here. Players like BJ Butler, Brandon Dunn and Roy Philon have a chance to take big-time leaps, but this unit is still relatively unproven compared the ones ranked ahead.

6. Syracuse. No question the Orange have excellent defensive ends in Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich. But the Orange lose their starters on the inside. Deon Goggins and Cory Boatman are penciled in to start at tackle but they are undersized. So are some of the other players who will rotate in. The line as a whole is pretty undersized when you think about it, and a big reason why Syracuse is ranked here.

7. Cincinnati. The Bearcats were solid against the run last season but struggled to get a consistent pass rush. They hope to remedy that now that Walter Stewart has moved to defensive end. Last season, the Bearcats lacked depth but that is no longer the case in 2011. The top eight players in the rotation return, and there is nice size in the middle -- especially with defensive tackle Derek Wolfe returning. Still, the Bearcats have a lot to prove this season.

8. Rutgers. Aside from nose tackle Scott Vallone, there are some questions on this defensive line, which has to show significant improvement over a unit that was so-so in 2010. Rutgers was one of the worst teams in the nation in sacks last season, with just 17. Manny Abreu moves from linebacker. How does that transition go? Justin Francis had a nice spring at end. Does that continue in 2011? Will Michigan transfer Anthony La Lota have an impact next to Vallone? There is a lot of inexperience along the entire line.

Previous rankings
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- On my trip to West Virginia last week, the one year that came up about as much as 2011 or 2010 was 2008.

That, of course, was Bill Stewart's first year as the head coach of the Mountaineers. And there are several similarities to the 2008 defense when it comes to this, Stewart's final season at the controls in Morgantown.

Like 2008, this 2011 club loses seven defensive starters off a senior-laden unit that was one of the best in the country the year before. West Virginia hopes the results are a little better.

To be sure, that 2008 defense was far from a disaster. It ended up leading the Big East in points allowed (17 per game), though it finished just sixth in total defense. The biggest issue came early on, when Stewart says the team wasn't experienced enough to throw out different looks in the first month against East Carolina and Colorado, both losses.

[+] EnlargeBruce Irvin
AP Photo Michael SwitzerBruce Irvin led the Big East in sacks last season with 14.
Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 stack defense has proved to be very effective over the years, but it runs best when he has veterans who know the system in and out. Stewart talked all last preseason about how the 2010 team masked its coverages just like the 2007 Fiesta Bowl team. It did just that in producing one of the best defenses in the country.

"This year is a lot like '08," Stewart said. "You've got to be able to disguise in the 3-3-5. If you just set it, you're in trouble."

Why is the 3-3-5 so dependent on experience and movement? Stewart and Casteel have not divulged much about the specifics of the defense or how it works over the years. Unlike other successful systems, they don't share tips at coaches clinics or have other schools come in over the summer to study how they do things.

"And we don't really care to," Stewart said. "It's not advantageous for us. The system is unique in the way we run it."

Suffice it to say that the 3-3-5 can confuse opposing quarterbacks and offenses because of the different looks it presents. One of the three safeties can come from anywhere, as well as the linebackers. But that also means that everyone on the defense has to be on the same page at the same time -- "like puppets on a string," defensive end Bruce Irvin said.

"In a lot of ways, it's a benefit to us that not a lot of offenses are seeing it week in and week out," Casteel said. "Nobody really runs it. We have a belief in the way we do things."

Despite the loss of so many starters, the Mountaineers still boast a strong core to build around. There's Irvin, the Big East leader in sacks who will play a bigger role this year. There's defensive end Julian Miller, who slides over to Scooter Berry's slot to take on tight ends and down blockers. Cornerback Keith Tandy will look to continue his elevated play after grabbing six interceptions last year. Safety Terence Garvin quietly led the team in tackles last year, and Najee Goode was an underrated presence at linebacker.

Now it's about working in some of the new guys, such as junior-college transfer Josh Francis at linebacker.

"He doesn't know where he's going right now, but when he goes, he gets there awful fast," Stewart said. "I never see him not going 100 miles an hour. I hope he doesn't drive on the highway like he plays on the field, because it's full throttle. But I know one thing: when he comes off that edge, not many tackles or backs want to mess with him."

Stewart also called linebacker Doug Rigg "a rising superstar" because of his understanding of the game, which he compared to former standouts Reed Williams and Mortty Ivy.

The Mountaineers have a mountain of a challenge in replacing nose guard Chris Neild; they hope a combination of Jorge Wright, Josh Taylor and incoming junior college transfer Shaq Rowell can do the trick. And they have to find replacements for cornerback Brandon Hogan and safeties Robert Sands and Sidney Glover, two rocks in the back end of the 2010 defense.

"We have some kids who can really run back there," Casteel said. "They're just puppies right now."

How fast those puppies grow up could determine how much bite this West Virginia defense has. Or how much like 2008 it will really be.