Both are words that West Virginia University football coach Neal Brown used to describe his defensive front since the Mountaineers claimed a 27-21 double-overtime win Saturday over Baylor.
The WVU defense yielded just 27 rushing yards on 33 carries, sacked Bears quarterback Charlie Brewer six times, picked him off twice and came up with stop after stop as the Mountaineers offense faced its own struggles.
Early this week, the national recognition rolled in, specifically for senior defensive lineman Darius Stills, who was named the Big 12 Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Week, the Chuck Bednarik National Player of the Week and the Athlon Defensive Player of the Week after racking up 21/2 sacks and 31/2 tackles for loss.
It’s nothing new in terms of production for Stills, who sacked Brewer three times in a 17-14 loss to Baylor a year ago in Waco, Texas.
But according to Brown, there has been something different about Stills’ focus over the past few weeks, and Brown believes that led directly to his big game on Saturday.
“He’s had his two best weeks of preparation since I’ve been here and our staff has been here and I think there’s a direct correlation in that,” Brown said. “His prep and practice habits were much improved.”
While Stills was great, he was far from the only one. Jeffrey Pooler and Akheem Mesidor each registered a sack and combined for seven tackles. Dante Stills came up with another three tackles, including one for loss. And that was just across the defensive front.
“That’s a good room,” Brown said of his defensive line. “They feed off of each other. Darius and Dante have had a lot of success and [Pooler] is in that room and we’ve got some younger guys in that room as well. That’s a room that has good chemistry.”
That chemistry starts with the Stills brothers, who have made names for themselves over the past couple of seasons and stretching further back to their careers at Fairmont Senior High School. As a senior, the preseason accolades and attention largely fell to Darius Stills, who was named the league’s defensive player of the year.
But as Darius Stills has taken strides as of late, Brown said that Dante Stills has followed.
“They’re best friends, they live together, they do everything together so there’s no negativity, but I think they do push each other,” Brown said. “Darius has really stepped up the last couple of weeks from a work-ethic standpoint. You see Dante starting to do the same thing, but I’m glad we’ve got them on our team. I think Darius is capable of playing at a high level all the time. I think Dante is, but people forget this is really only the second year that Dante has played an important role.
“That was the hardest Dante Stills has played in any game in his West Virginia career. If he’ll play with that effort and energy, then he’ll continue to make a bunch of plays and be productive.”
And then there’s Mesidor, a true freshman from Clearwater, Florida, who earned a three-star rating coming out of high school. So far this season he’s made nine tackles (eighth best on the team), with three for loss and a pair of sacks.
Mesidor was listed as the starter against Baylor over Dante Stills on Saturday, though Stills was inserted almost immediately. Perhaps it was an effort to motivate Dante Stills, and if it was, it certainly seemed to work. But starting or not, Mesidor has provided crucial depth up front and continues to make strides in just his first year of college football.
“Mesidor has probably played as much as any other freshman in our program,” Brown said. “He’s explosive and he loves football — he doesn’t like it, he loves football. He loves to compete. He loves to practice. He’s hungry to learn and we played him more on the outside on the edge this week. I think he feels more comfortable there, that’s where he’s played in the past. That was his best game. I just like the way he competes and plays and prepares.”
In taking the bar up a notch on Saturday, the WVU defensive front reset the standard in terms of what it’s capable of doing and what’s expected. And while Brown was pleased, it’s something he wants to see in each of the coming weeks.
“I thought the effort and physicality with our defensive unit was special,” Brown said. “That’s something we need to continue. There’s no reason we can’t play with that same effort and physicality week in and week out. Credit our defensive coaches, they had a really good game plan, but our kids went out and played really hard and physical.”