FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- With the way the West Virginia and Clemson offenses have been hyped leading into the Discover Orange Bowl, you have to wonder whether both defenses have gotten a little tired about hearing how they are the weak link.
After all, there has been nothing weak about the way the Mountaineers defense played at the end of the season. After struggling early on, West Virginia put together its three best defensive performances of the season when they were needed most -- in the final three games. In those games, West Virginia had 14 sacks and allowed averages of 22.7 points and 365.7 yards per game.
Consider that in the first nine games of the season, West Virginia had just 14 total sacks, allowed 27.4 points a game and 487.8 yards of offense.
Defensive end Julian Miller pinpointed why things turned around late in the season for the defense.
"It was mainly three things," he said. "No. 1, younger guys started stepping up, started to understand our defense and started make plays for us. No. 2, with our defensive coaches, we had the No. 3-ranked defense last year so those guys had high expectations for us coming in. At the beginning, we weren't living up to those expectations. It got to a point where we got frustrated and tired of getting yelled. We knew we could be doing better. Everything the coaches were teaching us, we started realizing they're right, so let's go ahead, get our stuff together and play ball like we know we can. No. 3, it was gaining confidence as a defense. We weren't as confident as we could have been. Those last three games, being able to play the way we did, our confidence was almost through the roof and that's a good way to come into a game like this."
Miller, for one, came on strong at the end of the year, mainly because he was healthy again. An ankle injury hobbled him for much of fall camp and the start of the season, so he was not as effective as he was in 2010. He had a huge play against Cincinnati when he recovered a fumble in the end zone, and that helped get the BCS dominoes to fall in favor of West Virginia.
The following week against Pitt, Miller had four sacks to tie a single-game high. West Virginia had 10 total in that game. Then, in the finale against USF, linebacker Najee Goode forced a crucial fumble late in the game that allowed West Virginia to drive for the winning touchdown. Pat Miller also scored on an interception return for a touchdown -- the second defensive score in three weeks. West Virginia had one (Terence Garvin against Maryland) in the first nine games of the season.
West Virginia also forced at least one turnover in five consecutive games to end the season. In the first seven games, it failed to force a turnover four times. There were nine forced turnovers in those first seven games; 10 in the final five.
So offense might get all the headlines, but this is quite a confident group headed into its showdown Wednesday.
"I love our offense," Goode said. "The fact they can score 35 points a game makes our job easier. The team that plays the best defense is going to win. If you take advantage of some of the stuff Clemson does, if we can take advantage of Tajh Boyd, fluster him a little bit, and even though Sammy Watkins is a great player, he's still a freshman. He hasn't played against a defense like ours. Tajh Boyd hasn't played against a defense like ours. So if we can confuse him enough to do certain things and take advantage of certain plays they run, then we can have a great game.
"Kinda how we played Oklahoma (in 2008 Fiesta Bowl), that was a bigger team, that was a huge team compared to us, and then we were able to confuse Sam Bradford, who's in the NFL right now. A good offense like (Clemson's), we have to play a sound game, we have to execute."