West Virginia defense getting noticed for good reason

About 2.5 seconds after No. 3 West Virginia stormed back into the national-championship picture, coach Rich Rodriguez ordered his players to avoid that subject and speak only of Saturday's game against No. 20 Connecticut (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

He might as well have issued a cease-and-desist order on John Denver music at Milan Puskar Stadium.

See, Rodriguez has a guy on his defensive line -- mammoth nose tackle Keilen Dykes -- who likes talking more than Bill Belichick likes winning.

So, Keilen, do you watch those BCS standings pretty closely?

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't. ... If we had a different logo on our helmet, they'd probably put us higher. But it is what it is. ... Hopefully, we'll go out and win these two games [including the season finale against Pitt], and see what happens."

Any bowl game in particular you're hoping for?

"Well, nobody wants to go to the Backdoor-Mickey Mouse-Whatever-You-Want-to-Call-it-Dot.com Bowl," Dykes said. "Everybody's focus is to make it to one of the big bowls ... 'cause they give the best gifts."

The Mountaineers (9-1 overall, 4-1 Big East) will secure a BCS bowl berth -- and maybe a spot in the national championship game -- if they defeat visiting Connecticut (9-2, 5-1).

Even if West Virginia, which was favored to win the Big East title this season, falls the following Saturday against Pitt, the Mountaineers would win the tiebreaker against UConn.

The upstart Huskies, picked to finish seventh in the eight-team league, can win the title outright with a victory. They are a 17-point underdog.

West Virginia has won all three meetings between the schools, all in the past three years, by an average margin of 23.3 points.

UConn coach Randy Edsall was busy rattling off a list of West Virginia's offensive stars the other day when he stopped himself and said, "Maybe I can talk Rich into letting us have 12 [players] against their 11 -- let me play Canadian rules."

Actually, it seems as if the West Virginia defense has been using 12 men at times. Everybody knows about quarterback Pat White, tailback Steve Slaton and the rest of a dynamic offense that scores nearly 40 points a game, but the defense has been every bit as good.

"No worries when they're on the field," said White, who has rushed for 458 yards in the past three games. "They've been excellent all season, and we really appreciate that."

This time last year, nobody was complimenting this defense. In its final six games of '06, West Virginia surrendered an average of 32 points and 413 yards per game. It finished the season ranked 62nd in total defense and an unsightly 109th in pass defense.

When last seen, at the Gator Bowl, the Mountaineers' defense was chasing around Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson as if he were an unstoppable Xbox character.

"We were totally embarrassed," says senior safety Eric Wicks.

Well, now look: West Virginia will bring the country's fourth-ranked defense into Saturday's game, yielding just 289.3 yards and 17.3 points per game, down more than four points and nearly 50 yards from last season.

The pass defense is ranked 18th, yielding 195.6 yards per game. West Virginia leads the Big East in sacks (30) and has forced 28 turnovers, tied for 10th nationally.

Wicks says the big difference, schematically, is that Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel have deployed their safeties differently, using two deep, each responsible for half the field.

"A lot of teams, when they saw that single-high safety, saw a lot of ways to attack it," Wicks said.

It helps that the two-deep safeties -- Wicks and Michigan transfer Ryan Mundy -- are smart, athletic players.

Mundy, the free safety, was able to play this season because of a since-rescinded NCAA rule that allowed graduate students with eligibility to transfer and play immediately. He was part of a destructive Michigan defense last year -- and believes this one is comparable.

"Are we going to have four draft picks in the first two rounds [as Michigan did]? I don't know," Mundy said. "But I feel like this is a very good defense. The key to that [Michigan defense] was the line, with Alan Branch and LaMarr Woodley and those guys. It's the same here."

The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Dykes seconded that opinion. He is the key to a stiff run defense that must contend with UConn backs Andre Dixon and Donald Brown II, who combine to average 144 yards rushing per game.

"No matter what happens with the secondary and linebackers, it starts up front," Dykes said. "We had to step up our game this season. Once we did that, everything fell into place."

Mundy believes Dykes and dominant defensive end Johnny Dingle wouldn't have looked a bit out of place on that Michigan defense. Dykes is a returning All-Big East player. Dingle, a Florida transfer, leads the team in sacks (eight) and tackles for loss (15½).

The two go by "Batman and Robin," with Dykes as Batman.

"I don't mind being Robin," Dingle said. "Robin's just a guy who goes and does what he wants."

Dykes seconded that opinion, too.

"I do the hard work, the grunt stuff," he said. "Robin, he gets the one-on-one action. He goes in and takes them out."

The Huskies protect the ball as if it's a block of gold. They have committed only 11 turnovers, tied for second-fewest in the country. Only White among Big East quarterbacks has thrown fewer interceptions (three) than UConn's Tyler Lorenzen (five).

"They're a conservative team," Wicks said. "We need to slow up the run and make them pass."

In other words, duplicate what Cincinnati did two weeks ago, when it physically dominated the Huskies, holding them to 22 rushing yards in a 27-3 victory.

One thing's for sure: If Dingle makes a play, people will hear about it.

"That's my game -- I let you know when I make a play," he said.

Dykes, borrowing a line from "Goodfellas," says, "We call him Johnny Two-Times, 'cause he says the same thing twice all the time."

West Virginia's defense can talk all it wants this year.

Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.