Plenty of Positives Thus Far For Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN – Ten things that have gone well for West Virginia in a 5-1 start that has it ranked 19th in the nation.

10. The LSU Loss: Whenever the “experts” suggest the Big East’s best non-conference showing may well have been West Virginia’s six-point loss on the road to LSU, it would have to be included. Had the Mountaineers won that game, they would be sitting in the Top 10 right now. But there are lessons to be learned in losing. Since that game, the Mountaineers have outscored their opponents 69-16. Lesson learned.

9. Home Cookin’: If you buy a ticket for a home game, chances are you’ll see the Mountaineers win. They have not lost a game at home since Nov. 2008 against Cincinnati. Since, West Virginia has won 13 straight at Mountaineer Field. Included in that was a perfect run through last season’s home card.

8. Geno Smith: Even the eternal optimist (not that WVU’s fanbase has any of those) couldn’t have expected Smith to be this good this fast. Frankly, this kid quarterback is so far ahead of the curve, it’s not even funny. A sophomore with all of six career starts under his belt, Smith is the Big East’s second-rated passer. He’s completed 121 of 177 passes for 1,358 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. To put that in perspective, he’s 297 yards away from matching Pat White’s entire sophomore season passing numbers.

7. Bruce Irvin: Rarely do guys who follow their reputations into the room live up to the hype. But Irvin has been as advertised. Through six games, he has five sacks, which is tied for second in the Big East. But it’s more than the numbers. Irvin comes off the bench and changes the game – WVU men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins loves guys like this – whether it’s forcing the QB into someone else’s arms or into a bad pass. There isn’t a defensive coordinator in the land that wouldn’t want a guy like this on his team.

6. The backups: This is far from a 22-man group. Against UNLV, the Mountaineers used 67 players. Technically, Brad Starks isn’t a backup, but he did lose his starting position to Stedman Bailey because he missed fall practice time with an injury. Still, he’s been as productive as anyone when his number has been called, as four of his six catches have gone for touchdowns. Along the offensive line, Cole Bowers has come along, and in the secondary, Eain Smith continues to bring the hits. There are many more.

5. The scripted plays: Go back and look at the first 15 plays offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen has drawn up for each game this season. Makes you wonder why they don’t just script 70 and go with it. Part of the reason the defense has been so good of late is because the offense has jumped out to a lead and forced opponents to play from behind. Mullen says they work on this Mondays and Tuesdays, which, some say, is when games are won. In this case, it hasn’t hurt.

4. Third Down: Two things every fan should look at when deciding to get on a bandwagon or jump off is if their team is staying on the field on offense and getting off it on defense on third down. West Virginia is the best in the Big East at both. The offense converts 43.6 percent of the time. The defense bends 12.3 percent of the time. This makes football very watchable for Mountaineers fans.

3. The five-wide look: This is the best idea to come along in the Bill Stewart Era. With Bailey, Starks, Jock Sanders, Tavon Austin, and J.D. Woods in the game at the same time, the offense has been unstoppable. Smith, in this situation, completed a pass to someone on 17 of his first 18 attempts with five receivers in the formation. It’s not something you want to do all the time when you have five of the Big East’s six all-time leading rushers and because there are no extra blockers for blitzers, but it’s a fantastic change of pace. Given time, Smith will pick defenses apart in this look.

2. Special Teams: There’s no doubt, special teams were a mitigated disaster last season, so much so that the guy in charge of them took a step back and passed those duties onto others. You’re rarely seeing the long returns from opponents that put the Mountaineers in so many bad situations last season. Newcomer Corey Smith’s kickoffs have helped, as has the way Steve Dunlap’s defenders have attacked. They’re still looking for the big returns, but with Sanders and Noel Devine, they can’t be too far from breaking one.

1. The Casteel Curtain. From front to back, this is the one of the nation’s top-ranked units, led by nose tackle Chris Neild. Stewart was asked during Monday’s Big East Conference call why defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel doesn’t get the notoriety he probably should. Stewart, like himself, likes to think this small-town boy, who doesn’t have an agent, isn’t in to self-promotion, and is quite content with his duties in his home state. Whatever the case, Casteel’s 3-3-5 Stack alignment generally causes opponents fits when it doesn’t have experienced players. Now that it does, Casteel is able to disguise just about everything, and the results are showing. One nice wrinkle this year is having Irvin and stud safety Robert Sands line up next to each other on blitzes. You better believe the opposing QB is shaking in his Nikes when he sees that.

Jim Elliott can be reached via e-mail at: