3-3-5 Has Teams Baffled

MORGANTOWN – It must be a funny scene, when West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel assembles his newcomers, grabs a piece of chalk, and writes: Today’s Lesson, The 3-3-5 Stack defense.

Blank faces all around, no doubt.

A lot of these guys, like third-year cornerback Brandon Hogan, played offense in high school. They were learning to beat base defenses or just relying on natural talent.

Hogan said he’d never seen a 3-3-5 alignment prior to landing on his feet in Morgantown.

Spending his freshman season on offense, he’s seen firsthand how it causes so many teams fits.

Just the other day, offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen was asked how his offense does against Casteel’s defense.

”Terribly,” Mullen said.

Very few teams run the 3-3-5, so the West Virginia game is the only time they have to practice against it.

”We can put a lot of offenses in tough positions,” Hogan said. ”You don’t see it every day. (Opposing teams) aren’t able to manipulate it in practice and know what to do. I like to go against a young quarterback that really doesn’t know anything about it and try to make some plays off him.”

Safety Robert Sands has a secret: ”To me,” he said, ”it’s just an inverted 3-4 defense. The spur, instead of him being the safety, he would be a linebacker in the 3-4 defense. That’s it really.”

If only it were that easy.

The truth is, it’s a defense that isn’t really easy to solve when it has inexperienced players. But when it’s loaded with veterans – head coach Bill Stewart likens this team to the 2007 team that old guys like Eric Wicks and Ryan Mundy at the back end – Casteel can really get creative.

”What’s going on is the quarterback is getting confused with the safeties because the safeties are always moving around,” Sands said. ”We don’t stand in one place. That’s what confuses the quarterback, but really, it’s all the same, whether it be a 3-4 or a 3-3-5.”

When they’re not trying to solve it in practice, there’s nobody that appreciates the nation’s fifth-ranked defense more than the West Virginia offense.

”We don’t have to score every possession,” receiver Jock Sanders said. ”We’ve got a great defense. They’ve been great this whole season. I already knew it. We’ve got a lot of veterans on that defense. They all gel together. It happened so fast because they’ve been together so long. But just knowing that we have our defense in our corner is a relief. Our defense can go out there any snap, any given play, they can make plays.”

And, thus, there’s a lot less pressure on, Mullen, quarterback Geno Smith and the rest of the offense.

”We feel like once our offense puts points on the board, they shouldn’t have to do anything else, because the defense will go out and stop them,” Hogan said. ”We want them to look good, but whenever they don’t, we don’t look at it as anything, we just go out there and play.”

West Virginia’s defense is gaining notoriety this season, but Stewart points out Casteel’s setup has been saving the Mountaineers for years, dating back to the Rich Rodriguez days.

But this year, it’s playing on a whole new level.

”The difference this year is everybody’s hungry,” Sands said. ”Everybody’s on the same page. Everybody wants to make a play. As you can see, there are four or five hats on the ball. The running back or the quarterback isn’t getting hit by one person, he’s getting hit by three or four guys. That’s the difference right now. Everybody wants to make a play. Everybody wants to be that guy for the week.”

To think, the man responsible for it grew up in Paden City.

The players love the guy.

”You just have to look at the numbers each year on defense,” Sands said. ”Every year, the defense always produces good players, always top-10 in some type of category. He knows what he’s doing, so it’s easy to listen to a person who has already proven it.”