'Mike's field' gets a fine showing
MORGANTOWN - The day started appropriately in Touchdown City.
On a beautiful, sunny day, before the first play took place between Big East foes Connecticut and West Virginia, a tribute was presented to the man after whom the stadium is named: Milan "Mike" Puskar, who passed away on Friday.
He was a friend to WVU. He was a friend to Morgantown. He was a friend to West Virginia.
Fittingly, WVU presented a video tribute, ending it with the words, "Thank you, Mike. Forever a Mountaineer."
The fans stood. They gave a heartfelt cheer.
Puskar's team then went out and made him proud. After the Mountaineers once again had to warm up, they rolled to a 43-16 victory in front of 56,179.
"We gave the ball to the family of Mr. Mike Puskar for everything he's done," said WVU coach Dana Holgorsen afterward. "I got a chance to get to know him and he will be missed."
By more people than Holgorsen knows. The new coach and his team, however, served Puskar's memory well.
With conference realignment talk (again) dominating the news this past week, the Mountaineers centered on the task at hand and took care of the Huskies, who fell to 2-4.
Offensively, WVU rolled up 541 yards. The team scored over 34 points for the fifth time in six games. It is now averaging 503.5 yards of total offense and 40.8 points. The Holgorsen Experiment is working.
The defensive unit, meanwhile, didn't give up a touchdown. Again. That happened against Marshall, which scored its lone TD on a punt return. It happened against Norfolk State. The Mountaineers are now allowing 21.5 points per game and an average of 301.2 yards.
WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel seemed pleased after Saturday's effort.
"I thought we got a little bit better as the game went on," said Casteel. "We actually saw some kids grow a little bit today. They did some good things. They were a little bit more aggressive.
"It was good to see. We saw some improvement in some of the things we've been asking them to do."
For the fifth time this season, WVU started slowly. The Mountaineers were losing at halftime to Norfolk State before winning 55-12. They were down 27-7 against LSU before rallying to at least make it a game in the third quarter. They were losing early both to Marshall and Bowling Green.
West Virginia, now 5-1, is saved, however, a few ways.
First, there are effective team adjustments. We didn't witness that, especially offensively, in the not-so-distant past. Saturday we again saw that Holgorsen's crew knows its way around a white board.
"We try to put points on the board, but a lot of defenses do things differently against us," said Mountaineer running back Dustin Garrison, who finished with 80 yards rushing and a catch for 4 yards. "It took us awhile, but at halftime we talked about it. Then we went out and made plays."
He spelled out what the Huskies were throwing at the WVU offense.
"They rushed a lot more than we thought," Garrison said. "We knew they'd play the run, but they played it a lot. Coach Holgorsen noticed it and started running play action and stuff like that, throwing the ball deep."
There were also defensive adjustments, although Casteel has been limited somewhat as he rebuilds from last year's unit.
"Not as [many adjustments] as what you might think," said the defensive coordinator of Saturday's effort. "[UConn] came out, though, and did some things our kids hadn't seen. And, with young kids, sometimes it takes a while for them to understand what's happening. It was good to see the kids did adjust. We were able to do a little bit more with them today than in the previous four or five games."
Like create a game-changing turnover in the third quarter when cornerback Pat Miller jarred the ball from Husky quarterback Johnny McEntee and linebacker Jewone Snow returned it 83 yards before running out of gas at the UConn 12. ("He should of lateraled that ball, you know?" Casteel said with a grin.)
"The quarterback came out on my side," Miller said. "I saw him running and just went and hit him. He was spinning, so I caught him on the back side. The ball just popped up in the air and Snow recovered the fumble. I didn't see the ball at all. I just saw a bunch of West Virginia players running."
Snow might have run out of gas, but a flame was created. That's something else this WVU team seems to do well: find and sustain momentum.
Holgorsen, by the way, jests his halftime speeches aren't for the feint-hearted, but these Mountaineers don't seem to panic. It's served them well when one checks the scoreboard at the end of games.
"We know what we have to do," said receiver Ivan McCartney. "It just has to click faster. There's no yelling. None of that. [At halftime] it's everybody lifting everybody up. Letting each other know we have each other, that we can do this."
All, it seems, have different takes on the slow starts and what ignites the fast finishes.
"Momentum," said McCartney. "When Jewone Snow got the [fumble recovery], that set the sideline off. Then we were ready."
"It's all about how we take the field," Miller offered.
My take: It's all about the talent taking the field. WVU has more of it than any team on its schedule - with the exception of LSU, which is now in the rear-view mirror. And I'll take an edge in talent, smart coaches and a dash of momentum every day on any field.
On Saturday, we saw it all on Mike's field.
I imagine very much to his delight.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.