In the only game in six (so far) played in Huntington, a Marshall back jumped on the shoulders of a tackle in the end zone to advert a shutout by catching a touchdown pass in a 92-6 West Virginia win. Local bettors won, however, as WVU coach Sol Metzger predicted a shutout and the Big Green coach, Boyd "Fox" Chambers lived up to his name with the trick play. The game remains as Marshall's biggest loss and the Mountaineers biggest win, but WVU put another whipping on the Herd in 2006 with a 42-10 win in Morgantown. Enough history, on with the preview of the top five-ranked "Eers."
No longer just a rising program, West Virginia is now a perennial powerhouse under head coach Rich Rodriguez. With stars Steve Slaton and Pat White returning, this might finally be the year the Mountaineers turn the corner and play for the national title. Rodriguez has built a program in Morgantown that now expects to win championships every year. Everyone's trendy pick to challenge for a national title in 2006 fell short, losing to Louisville and South Florida in November, but it's no longer going out on a limb to think the Mountaineers can win it all.
Head coach: Rich Rodriguez
7th year: 50-24
Returning Lettermen: 43
Lettermen Lost: 27
Ten Best WVU Players
1. QB Pat White, Jr.
2. RB Steve Slaton, Jr.
3. S Eric Wicks, Sr.
4. DT Keilen Dykes, Sr.
5. OT Ryan Stancheck, Jr.
6. WR Darius Reynaud, Sr.
7. FB Owen Schmitt, Sr.
8. S Quinton Andrews, Soph.
9. LB Reed Williams, Jr.
10. CB Antonio Lewis, Sr.
Sept. 1 Western Michigan
Sept. 8 at Marshall
Sept. 13 at Maryland
Sept. 22 East Carolina
Sept. 29 at South Florida
Oct. 6 at Syracuse
Oct. 20 Mississippi State
Oct. 27 at Rutgers
Nov. 8 Louisville
Nov. 1 at Cincinnati
Nov. 2 Connecticut
Dec. 1 Pitt
From the moment Coach Rod spurned Alabama to remain at his alma mater, West Virginia took yet another big step in the fight to remain an elite of the elite program. With one decision to stay put, WVU suddenly became a destination job and not quite a stepping-stone many thought it'd be for Rodriguez. He and his coaches adapt to their personnel and develop talent about as well as any staff in the country, and now they're getting more and more of the top-shelf players to fit the system. Of course, it helps immensely that QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton will also be back for their junior years to build around.
White and Slaton create a speed advantage that few, if any, defenses can contain even when they know what's coming. Even scarier than their past performances is what's lurking on the horizon now that White has shown signs of improvement as a passer to go along with his game-breaking running ability in the open field. Helping the stars is all the returning experience with plenty of starters and seasoned backups to both sides of the ball. The key will be finding replacements for last year's leading tackler, Boo McLee, and a pair of graduating offensive linemen, most notably Rimington Award winner Dan Mozes. The Mountaineers never have a shortage of run blocking road graders, but losing offensive line coach Rick Trickett to Florida State won't make the transition any easier.
West Virginia has won 11 games in each of the last two seasons and back-to-back bowl games for just the second time in school history. That head of steam, coupled with a veteran roster should mean another big run in the Big East title race. With the right breaks, the Mountaineers will be shooting for even more.
What to watch for on offense: The spread offense conjures up images of a dink and dunk passing game, but no one runs the ball or keeps defenses on its heels better than WVU, which has the Big East's most potent ground game five years running. With White and Slaton in the backfield, there's no reason to get too cute and go away from what's been working. The offense is about getting to the playmakers as quickly as possible, creating space, and then watching them run through the gaping seams. Look for more play-action in 2007, allowing White to find the team's other blazer, WR Darius Reynaud.
What to watch for on defense: Nothing about West Virginia is conventional, including the defense, which employs the 3-3-5 stack to get its best athletes on the field for blitz packages while creating a swarming effect in run defense. The Mountaineers, however, got scorched through the air repeatedly down the stretch last year, a flaw that has to be corrected or else they'll be vulnerable again, even in a league that's short on prolific passers not named Brohm.
The team will be far better if: The defense can create pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The pass rush was spotty last fall, leaving an already iffy secondary to cover an extra second or two longer than it could handle. It's incumbent upon the unit to flush the pocket and create sacks or else the Mountaineers will again rank among the worst in the country against the pass. Neither White nor Slaton is that big or that durable, so keeping both healthy will also be a year-long objective.
The Schedule: It's all about surviving the early barrage. After warming up against a good Western Michigan team, the Mountaineers have to survive a brutal stretch of four road games in five weeks and five away games in the first eight going to Marshall, Maryland, South Florida, Syracuse and Rutgers. If the team is BCS title worthy, it shouldn't have a problem winning four of the five, but it might be too much to ask to go unscathed in all five. Things don't exactly ease up in November, but at least Louisville, Connecticut and Pitt have to go to Morgantown.
Best Offensive Player: Junior RB Steve Slaton and QB Pat White. You can't have one without the other. Actually, as last year proved when injuries struck each, you can, and there can still be plenty of rushing production. Every team knows these two are going to run the ball. Every team goes into games knowing that there's no chance for a win without stopping them. Even so, no one can do it. Each deserves more credit in the Heisman chase.
Best Defensive Player: Senior NT Keilen Dykes. Not your typical soft body in the middle of a defensive line, Dykes is a rock solid, 6-4 and 300-pound presence for the Mountaineer defense. While always stout against the run, the reigning first team All-Big East tackle continues to improve in his ability to penetrate and pressure opposing quarterbacks.
Key player to a successful season: Senior CBs Larry Williams and Vaughn Rivers. The Mountaineers struggled all season long in pass defense with most of the stats coming when games were out of reach. Even so, the secondary needs to tighten up, especially against Louisville, to get into the national title discussion.
The season will be a success if: The Mountaineers win the Big East title. Win the conference first, then hope everything else falls into place. It's not going to be easy considering how loaded the league is, but if they can win the home games against Louisville and Pitt, and can split with South Florid and Rutgers while beating Maryland in the non-conference schedule, things should fall into place for a second BCS slot in three years. The team is good enough to get shoot for nothing less.
Key game: Oct. 27 at Rutgers. The trip to South Florida in late September is also vital, but among the biggest of the big boys, West Virginia has to come away from Piscataway with a win or there's no chance at a BCS slot if it loses the following week against Louisville.
2006 Fun Stats:
- First quarter scoring: West Virginia 111 – Opponents 51
- West Virginia first downs rushing: 168 – passing 91
- Average yards per carry: West Virginia 6.7 – Opponents 3