MEC football: Strong defensive efforts good sign for UC, State
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charleston was able to register its first win of the season and West Virginia State fell in its home opener under first-year coach Jon Anderson on Saturday, but both may have found a couple of things that should help them the rest of the season.
First and foremost, both teams registered by far and away their best defensive efforts of the young season.
Consider, the Yellow Jackets limited an albeit already offensively challenged West Liberty team to just nine points while forcing two interceptions and two fumbles, making two sacks and breaking up six passes.
When the Hilltoppers did threaten, State was able to hold West Liberty to three field goals in seven trips to the red zone.
That effort kept an even more anemic State offense in the game until the end in a 9-0 defeat in sloppy conditions in Institute.
"Anytime playing in conditions that are less than great like they were, it favors the defense and you saw that on both sides of the football on Saturday," Anderson said. "We created four [turnovers] and had three so we ended up plus-1, so we won that battle.
"I'm really happy with what the defense did. They went 3 for 7 in the red zone and to only give up three field goals is outstanding."
The Golden Eagles (1-2 overall, 1-0 Mountain East), meanwhile, were able to capitalize on a defensive effort that included two touchdowns, five interceptions, nine pass breakups, a pair of sacks and 10 tackles for loss in a 38-15 conference win at Virginia-Wise.
UC's Torie Wagner and Bam Harrison returned interceptions 11 and 25 yards, respectively, to the end zone, accounting for more touchdowns than Virginia-Wise's offense mustered all day.
Golden Eagles coach Pat Kirkland said he expects his defense to lead the team all season.
"That's where our experience is, on that side of football," Kirkland explained. "We have eight of 11 starters back from last year's team and we expect those guys to perform. Five interceptions and two for touchdowns was certainly a step in the right direction."
In addition to stingy defenses, both State (0-3, 0-2) and Charleston found much-needed boosts to their running games.
After totaling just 37 yards on 12 carries over the first two games, senior running back Leighton Settle romped for 128 yards on 17 rushes on Saturday as UC resembled its old self, piling up 227 yards on the ground.
Junior C.J. Stallworth received a bulk of the work early in the season but Kirkland said Settle has emerged as an every-down type of back for UC.
"He's emerged as the guy that can handle the load," Kirkland said. "I think he's playing well and he's getting more comfortable in our system. He's handling it very well and he's a talented back."
As dismal as State's offense was in being shut out and limited to just 142 total yards and six first downs, the one bright spot was backup quarterback Joe Thornton.
In weather conditions that hindered throwing the football, Anderson inserted Thornton as a running threat and the sophomore responded with 27 yards on five attempts and completed the only pass he threw for 3 yards.
Through three games, State is scoring 5.33 points per game, but Anderson said he doesn't expect to insert any wildcat formations and that he and his staff aren't panicking just yet.
"On defense, you can put new people together and as long as they play physical and with heart and passion you're going to be OK," Anderson said. "You put a bunch of new guys together on offense, if not everybody is on the same page and taking the same step, it's tough. We're really working to get some success offensively and get some confidence in these guys. We're not panicking or changing what we believe in because I really feel two things are going to pay off for us - passion and hard work."
Both State and UC have 1 p.m. kickoffs this Saturday and will look to build on the positives from last week. After three road games to start the year, UC will finally debut in front of its home fans at University of Charleston Stadium as it takes on Notre Dame College. State will hit the road to take on Fairmont State.
Another full slate of conference games is on tap this weekend with all of them coming on Saturday.
The premier matchup seems to be Concord (2-1, 1-0) at West Liberty (2-1, 2-0) in a battle of league unbeatens scheduled for a 1 p.m. kickoff.
Glenville State (1-2, 1-1) will head to Urbana (1-2, 1-1) in the league's earliest game at noon.
Shepherd (3-0, 2-0) will look to remain unblemished as it travels to West Virginia Wesleyan for a 1 p.m. start wile Virginia-Wise (0-3, 0-2) will play the only nonconference game in the league this week when it hosts Union at 6 p.m.
Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him at twitter.com/RPritt.