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WVU Football: Learning New Schemes Can Take Time

October 19, 2012
By JIM ELLIOTT , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

In 2010, West Virginia was beaten, extremely unexpectedly, 19-14, at home against a Syracuse team that was a 14-point underdog.

Then-senior linebacker J.T. Thomas was spitting nails after that one and shut himself off from the world for a few days, saying he couldn't even stand to turn the TV on and watch football. Three days later, he was still fuming.

Thomas refused to place an ounce of blame on an offense that produced only 14 points that day.

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Linebacker Doug Rigg and the rest of the West Virginia defense are still learning on the job.

''There's no need to harp on the offense,'' Thomas said. ''No one talks when they put up 49. When they go out and put up 14, the defense needs to be that much better. We gave up a touchdown in that game. If we don't give up a touchdown, we probably win that ballgame.

''I'm pretty sure you'll see some tee'd off guys on that field Friday night with an even bigger chip on their shoulder,'' Thomas said, looking ahead to the next game.

In 2011, the Mountaineers lost 49-23 to a Syracuse team that, again, was a 14-point underdog. Then-senior defensive end Bruce Irvin was beside himself.

''Seeing how those guys were more physical and outplayed us, that's not what West Virginia football is all about,'' Irvin said. ''We never get out-physicaled and pushed around. We got smacked in the face. Hopefully, we respond from it.''

He then told a now famous story about how he felt like someone came into his village and did some unspeakable things to his wife and kids.

Last week, West Virginia was blown off the field by four-point underdog Texas Tech and the Mountaineers' defense has been extremely generous in giving up points and yards all season.

But unless you're holding a scholarship and your name is listed on the WVU roster as a defensive player, you really have no idea who the team's leaders are from year to year. Still, comments like those of Irvin and Thomas resonate.

And you're hearing very few comments like those of Irvin and Thomas in 2012.

The reason is a fairly simple one. It's a new defense from the coaches to the scheme to a great deal of the players.

Thomas practiced in the 3-3-5 for five years (he was a redshirt) under the same coaches, so he knew what was expected. Irvin deflected the notion he was a leader because he transferred in and played for only two seasons, but by the time of that Syracuse game, he had been learning the scheme for a year and a half.

No one on this defense has close to that type of experience in the current scheme.

''The defense two years ago, they were all seniors and juniors, they pretty much played with each other for a long time,'' said linebacker Doug Rigg, then a true freshman who earned his share of playing time with those guys. ''They knew where somebody was going to be without even talking.''

Today's Mountaineers are still learning the scheme, and more importantly, learning to trust it.

Rigg, who has played in 31 games at the school, explains.

''We don't have that one guy that knows exactly what everybody's doing and where they should be,'' he said. ''I know all the linebacker's spots, and I know what the D-line is supposed to do, but I don't necessarily know every play what the safeties and corners are supposed to do, so I can't yell at them about doing something if I don't 100 percent know what they're doing.''

It's rare a leader emerges from the guy who's learning on the job.

''A lot of people come off the sidelines yelling saying 'who was that, who was that?' '' Rigg said. ''Then you watch the film and see they were making the mistake themselves. That's the thing. We're learning that we need to come together when things go wrong instead of yelling at each other saying whose responsibility was that? Where were you on that play? You need to worry about 'hey, where was I on that play? Should I have made that play?'

''I think we're going to become a great defense when everybody knows what everybody's supposed to be doing at the same time.''

Cornerbacks coach Daron Roberts says the defensive leaders on the Mountaineers, at the moment, are guys that have played a lot of snaps.

''I think of Will Clarke, I think of Darwin Cook, I think of Terence Garvin so we have some leaders,'' he said.

Simply being around a while in itself is not enough to for total admiration from all of your teammates, though.

You have to earn it on the field.

Roberts pointed to true freshman Karl Joseph, saying he's everything you want at every position.

''I think the leadership questions about this defense are going to be answered here in a short period of time,'' Roberts said. ''I tell my guys this, 'the more plays you make, the more respect you're going to get from your teammates. You can't talk unless you've made plays. That's where your currency comes from.' I think we're growing leaders on defense.

''Week by week guys understand. We had a letdown in Lubbuck. And we've moved on from that, but leaders have to be in a position to go ahead and say 'hey, let's bounce back because the Kansas State coaches aren't feeling sorry for us.' ''

For the record, the guys playing defense at West Virginia are all competitors who were former high school stars who really never experienced failure on a football field.

And they're plenty bothered by all of it.

''I'm still mad,'' Rigg said. ''In general, I was mad when we won the game when we gave up 45 points, 63 points. As a defense, you're not trying to give up all those yards. You go on and it says 'shootout this week.' You don't want to hear commentators talking about the low point of the team being defense. I take it personal, but at the same time, we haven't done anything yet to prove otherwise.''

A complete performance against a top-five Kansas State team Saturday would cure a lot of ills. And stop a lot of questions.

As Roberts said, the Wildcats don't feel a bit sorry for the Mountaineers.

Jim Elliott can be reached via e-mail at: