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Loyal Casteel builds strong Mountaineers 'D'

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
When Bill Stewart got the West Virginia head coaching job after last season's Fiesta Bowl, defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel was one of two assistants to remain with him.

Everyone except Stewart, Casteel and defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich followed Rich Rodriguez to Michigan. And thanks in large part to Casteel staying behind, the Mountaineers may be able to stay on top the Big East.

"It's been a godsend," said Stewart, who added that when he found out Casteel would stay that "I was the happiest guy in Morgantown and the happiest guy in the state of West Virginia."

The West Virginia offense has begun to ignite the past two games, but for several weeks the defense had to hold things together. The Mountaineers lead the Big East in scoring defense and have shut out four of their past five opponents in the second half.

The offense hit some bumps in the road as it adjusted to first-year offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen. But Casteel has overseen the defense since 2001, so the players on that side didn't face as much of a transition.

"That helps a lot," senior linebacker Mortty Ivy said. "We all know the system, and he knows what he's doing, so it gives us all confidence."

That's not to say that things were easy from the start this year. West Virginia gave up 399 total yards and 21 points in its opener against FCS school Villanova. The following week brought a 24-3 defeat at East Carolina. At Colorado in Week 3, the Mountaineers trailed 14-0 after the first five minutes.

Casteel had to replace eight starters from last year's defense, and the growing pains showed early. But all of a sudden, things came together.

West Virginia did not allow another point in that Colorado game until the overtime period. Since then, the defense has surrendered just 56 points in five games and only two second-half touchdowns.

"I think the bottom line is that most of those kids were in situations that they haven't been in,'' Casteel told the Charleston Gazette this week. "And the more opportunities they got, the better they took advantage of them. There's nothing to replace experience. Every year you'd like to have eight or nine guys back and then you really don't have many issues. But having to replace that many guys, there's going to be a little bit of a dropoff.''

Ivy said the confidence of the team got higher and higher as it kept getting stops at Colorado. And Stewart believes that the return of senior linebacker Reed Williams -- who played only against the Buffaloes and a week later versus Marshall as he battled severe pain in both shoulders -- inspired toughness in his teammates.

"I'll forever remember that night in Boulder," Stewart said. "I can't tell you how they've grown."

Casteel helped implement West Virginia's unusual 3-3-5 scheme, which has become more and more effective over the years. His team finished seventh in the nation in total defense and eighth in scoring defense last year. Rodriguez invited him to come along to Ann Arbor, but Casteel decided to stay in his native state (he was born in Paden City, W. Va.). He got a $100,000 raise, too, as Stewart made sure his assistants shared the wealth.

He has a challenge on his hands with Saturday's game against Cincinnati. The Bearcats have one of the league's most potent and creative offenses, based heavily on the passing game. Young defensive backs like sophomores Brandon Hogan and Sidney Glover and true freshman Robert Sands will be tested by Cincinnati's deep receiving corps.

"They do a lot of scramble drills, so we've got to be able to contain them and make sure we lock onto the receivers," Ivy said. "If we do that, we should be OK, but you never know until Saturday."

The Mountaineers are confident in their defense, though, because they know the guy in charge so well.