MORGANTOWN — For the last year and change, West Virginia football’s biggest weakness has been its defense. Against rival Pitt on Saturday, however, that same defense turned out to be the Mountaineers’ greatest strength.
Against the Panthers, WVU’s much-maligned defense grabbed three interceptions, only allowed 211 yards and kept the Panthers out of the endzone, only surrendering a pair of field goals.
“We’ve been fairly criticized over the last year-and-a-half, especially in the secondary, that we haven’t played as well,” head coach Neal Brown said after the game. “ I’m happy for those guys in the secondary. And I’m happy for (safeties coach) Dontae Wright), defensive backs coach) ShaDon Brown and (defensive coordinator), Jordan Lesley, they had a good plan.
WVU gave up 262.3 passing yards per game last year and were allowing 285.1 this season before holding Pitt quarterback Phil Jurkovec to just 81 yards on 8 of 20 passing.
“We knew coming into the game that their quarterback wasn’t that good at his job or whatever,” said cornerback Beanie Bishop, who grabbed the second of three Jurkovec picks in the game. “Me, Anthony (Wilson), (Malachi) Ruffin, we were all wondering who was going to be next because interceptions come in bunches. We knew we were due for one.”
The Mountaineers had just four interceptions all of last season. The three on Saturday, from Bishop, safety Aubrey Burks and cornerback Malachi Ruffin, already puts WVU at five so far this year.
“We wanted to make it tough on the quarterback,” Brown said. “People are going to point and blame it on him, but it’s hard to throw the ball when you’ve got people in your face. That’s the easy choice for fans and critics a lot of times, that’s it’s got to be the quarterback. Well, there’s a lot of stuff going on in front of that quarterback. We were able to get pressure and we gave him a lot of different coverage looks.”
The game did not open well for WVU’s defense as Pitt ran the ball 11 straight times on its opening possession and drove 67 yards down the field before stalling out at the three-yard line and settling for a field goal.
“We were really energized early in the game,” Brown said. “Sometimes our linebackers were flowing too fast and they were hitting some gap runs. Once we settled down and played really good gap integrity, we felt like we have a really good football team up front.”
The Panthers really only had one other sustained possession in the game, a 57-yard march that resulted in a field goal just before halftime. Outside of those two drives, Pitt only had 67 yards on 35 plays.
“We knew we had to play four quarters of football.,” Burks said. “The defense just had to get our job done and coming out on top was a great feeling for us and for this state.”
Burks’s interception was a turning point early on. The Mountaineer offense had just lost a fumble in the redzone, but Burks’s pick and return to the seven-yard line set up backup quarterback Nicco Marchiol to throw a touchdown on the very next play.
“Every opportunity you get you have to take advantage of, so I took advantage of the opportunity and tried to make something happen for our offense,’ Burks said. “They finished off the rest by putting points on the board.
“I just felt like I had to do my job. Felt like I had to make a big play by doing my assignment. When the play came to me I made it and I can tell that hyped our defense up.”
Burks was happy the offense turned his interception into points, but he admitted that he would have preferred to reach the endzone himself.
“I got tackled by the quarterback, I think that’s pretty bad,” he laughed. “I wanted to score really bad, but I was happy the offense finished it off for me.”
Of Pitt’s six second-half offensive possessions, WVU’s defense forced two punts, two turnovers on downs and two interceptions to close out the low-scoring affair.
“A low-scoring game just means the team has to depend on us,” Bishop said. “Being out there for the critical moments and being able to put the game away, we want to showcase our ability that we can deliver in close games.”
“I think it’s the sign of a good football team,” Brown added. “We’ve had confidence in that group. I don’t think they’ve played as well as they could up until this game, but it was huge. This was a game that was going to be won by running the football, stopping the run and by who could create takeaways. We were able to create takeaways and we were able to run the ball just a little bit better than them and we took advantage.”