West Virginia had the best sack duo in the Big East returning this season, leaving many to believe the Mountaineers pass rush would be fierce.
With Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller combining for 23 sacks in 2010, it was natural to expect that. But so far, the West Virginia pass rush has been neutralized. The Mountaineers have a total of one sack -- that belongs to Irvin in the season opener against Marshall. Getting a sustained pass rush against No. 2 LSU on Saturday night is a huge key in an upset bid.
Part of the reason for not seeing a huge amount of sacks is because of the offenses West Virginia has played. All three have been quick-strike type offenses, where the ball is required to leave the hands of the quarterback as early as possible. Coach Dana Holgorsen estimated that Maryland quarterback Danny O'Brien got rid of the ball before the defensive line could get to him 95 percent of the time last week.
“When those situations arise when the quarterback hangs on to it, we just have to do a better job," Holgorsen said. "We feel like we have a couple guys that know how to rush the passer. It’s just about taking advantage of the opportunities when you get it.”
There are a few other reasons for the decreased sack production. Irvin is playing more snaps and starting at defensive end. There is much more of an awareness on him this season than there was last -- when he had 14 sacks as a pass-rush specialist. He has had to play through more double teams, and has been chipped by running backs. Scouts Inc. NFL draft expert Kevin Weidl had this to say about Irvin against Maryland on ESPN Insider:
"It's clear Irvin is one of the most natural pass-rushers in the nation. Irvin has tremendous first-step quickness to get upfield and around the edge, and late in the second quarter he smoked the Terps' offensive tackle around the corner and hurried QB Danny O'Brien. On the very next play, Irvin set up the tackle with an outside move before quickly redirecting inside and getting in O'Brien's face again."
The Maryland game last year was his breakout performance. He had three sacks in the game. His first knocked O'Brien out of the game. West Virginia had eight total sacks in that dominating performance. Irvin had three tackles and one tackle for loss last week in a 37-31 win.
Irvin has said he needs to play more disciplined for the entire game. Before the game last week, he said he would give himself a B or B-minus on his performance so far. "As the game goes on, I start to wander off and just pretty much freestyle," he said. "The biggest thing is to play disciplined all four quarters. To be a good football player, I have to do that."
One other factor could be Miller's move to defensive tackle. He also has been hobbled with an ankle injury, but had his best game against Maryland last week with six tackles and a forced fumble.
LSU has only given up three sacks this season, so trying to get to quarterback Jarrett Lee is going to be a huge challenge. West Virginia had two sacks and three tackles for loss last year at LSU, but the Tigers have a different starting quarterback in Lee and a different style of offense. Lee is more of a classic drop-back passer, and that could present some opportunities for West Virginia to get a few more sacks.
But first the Mountaineers have to get past a solid offensive line. We will see if they are up to the task.