Coach's criticism toughens WVU defense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Whether it's fair or unfair, the West Virginia defense has taken a lot of criticism this season.
While coach Dana Holgorsen's offense has put up unprecedented numbers for West Virginia, the defense has bared the brunt of the disapproval in Morgantown.
But the biggest criticism hasn't come from the fans, but from defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel.
"I think we take the most criticism from our coaches, especially Coach Casteel, than we take from anyone else," sophomore Doug Rigg said. "I can take anything from anyone else after taking criticism from him."
Despite being the whipping boy for the West Virginia football team, Casteel's intensity and demand for excellence has given the defense a thicker skin.
Casteel, known for his fiery nature, doesn't sugarcoat things for the players. He tells them like it is, and it's that mentality that's driven this defense to work hard and continue to improve even with the outside criticism.
"Being around Coach Casteel, you have to be very mentally tough," Rigg said. "He can break your spirits in a second with the things he says to you."
That mental toughness allowed the defense to persevere especially last week against Cincinnati.
The defense squandered a 17-7 lead, allowing back-to-back, 50-plus-yard touchdown drives, but it didn't lose focus. After West Virginia regained a 24-21 lead, the Mountaineers defense forced three-and-outs on consecutive drives that netted a combined minus-21 yards.
Even on Cincinnati's final drive after the Bearcats marched into West Virginia territory, the defense held on a crucial third-and-4 at their own 15 to force the game-winning field goal, which was blocked.
West Virginia allowed Cincinnati to gain 404 yards, but 174 yards came on offensive plays where the defense didn't make the play. But every time the Bearcats hit a big play, the defense shored up and made a stop.
West Virginia held the Big East's top scoring offense, which entered the game averaging 39.1 points per game, to 21 points.
"With that mental toughness you get from hearing him criticize you, in a game when you're down, it's nothing," Rigg said. "It's like we can come back from this, especially when he gives you encouragement on the sidelines."
After giving up an average of 393.3 yards and 39.3 points in the past three games, the defense knew it need to improve, step up and help the team win.
The Cincinnati win keeps West Virginia alive in the race for a Big East title and the conference's BCS berth, but it was also big for the defense.
"We knew it was a must-win game, with our backs against the wall," Rigg said. "Coach Holgorsen told us, 'What are you going to do with your back against the wall• It's easy when you're on top, but what are you going to do with your back against the wall?' "