The Mountaineers finished the 2008 regular season with an 8-4 (5-2 BIG EAST) record. The decision to replace Rich Rodriguez with longtime assistant Bill Stewart appeared to backfire early, as West Virginia lost two of its first three games, falling to East Carolina (24-3) and Colorado (17-14 in OT). But the Mountaineers ran off five straight victories before losing to eventual BIG EAST Cincinnati in overtime (26-23).
West Virginia's offense has not been as explosive as its been in recent years (352.5 yards per game ranks 65th nationally), due to an adjustment period in moving toward a more balanced attack, but the defense has remained steady, allowing opponents to just 15.9 points per outing, good for ninth nationally.
"They have bought into everything we've tried to do. They are good role models. They don't do that for publicity, we didn't even tell the press. I wanted to tell you because I wanted to brag on those guys a little bit. They will go out as the winningest senior class ever. It speaks volumes. It says if you work hard and do right, then good things happen." – Stewart on his senior class
"I can't remember a year where guys in those key of roles missed that significant of amount of time." – UNC head coach Butch Davis, referring to the rash of injuries that plagued his program this season
The re-emergence of West Virginia football is viewed by many to be directly related to quarterback Pat White. The fifth-year senior has become the poster child for spread option offenses across the country, displaying the ability to fluster his opponents both on the ground and through the air.
"He's an electrifying athlete," Davis said. "Just watching his film and the games that we've been able to catch on television over the last two years, he executes the read-option offense about as well as anybody you've ever seen. He explodes out of breaks… The thing that I think makes him equally as dangerous is that he can throw the football very, very well."
His career statistics are stunning, if not ridiculous. White owns 15 records, including the NCAA mark in all-time career QB rushing yardage (4,425) and the BIG EAST records in total touchdowns (100) and total offensive yardage (10,142). He has rushed for over 200 yards on four different occasions in his career, including a BIG EAST QB record 247 yards against Syracuse in 2004.
White is also averaging 6.67 yards per carry – for his career.
But to classify him as strictly a running quarterback undermines his accuracy throwing the ball. Not only does White rank second in the West Virginia history books with 53 career touchdown passes, but he is also completing 63.6 percent (154-of-242) of his throws in '08, tallying 1510 yards with 18 touchdowns and just six interceptions. His 135.64 passing efficiency rating is good for 37th nationally – higher than any quarterback in the ACC that has played in 75 percent of their games.
But to fully understand the player that Pat White, you have to put aside the laundry list of achievements and look at his results on the field. The senior is 33-8 under center in Morgantown, including dominant performances in three bowl games – two of which were BCS bowl games – leading the Mountaineers to 48 points against Oklahoma, 38 against Georgia Tech and 38 against Georgia.
"I tell you, in my opinion, he is the greatest winner in college football," Stewart said. "I certainly think there will be people that second that."
Matchups to Watch
UNC's Offense vs. West Virginia's Red-Zone Defense
West Virginia's defensive yardage numbers are not all that frightening at first glance. The Mountaineers are giving up a respectable 325.5 yards per game, while ranking 90th nationally in tackles for loss (5.0) and allowing their opponents 42 appearances inside the red zone.
But that's where the trouble begins. West Virginia leads the nation in red zone defense, holding its opponents to a 64 percent scoring mark inside the 20-yard line, which includes 18 touchdowns and nine field goals. Because of that ability to kill drives in the red zone, the Mountaineers are giving up less than 16 points per game.
"When you have breakdowns and something bad happens, you have the opportunity to give up big plays," Davis said. "But by the same token, they generate an awful lot of negative plays… Because of the 3-3-5 scheme, you never know or not if you're going to get a six or seven-man pressure and they're going to blitz you, or if they drop eight guys. If they drop eight in the red zone, there's many throwing lanes when you down there that close. "
North Carolina, on the other hand, has been relatively efficient in the red zone, scoring on 85 percent of its trips (34-of-40), which include 22 touchdowns and 12 field goals. One of the most important developments for the Tar Heels this season has been their ability to move the ball inside the red zone via the ground, totaling 15 rushing touchdowns.
Bruising short-yardage back Ryan Houston (295 yards, 8 TD) will provide a battering ram for offensive coordinator John Shoop against a physical Mountaineer defensive line.
UNC's Defense vs. WVU's Spread Offense
While White is the headliner for West Virginia, he's not the only threat in the Mountaineers' spread option offense. Sophomore Noel Devine leads the team with 1228 rushing yards and boasts a 6.4 yards-per-carry average.
"He's a very explosive athlete that can certainly score from anywhere on the field," Davis said. Stewart has installed a more balanced offense attack this season, but that description is relative to what West Virginia has done in recent years. The Mountaineers have run a total of 748 plays in ‘08, and 475 of those have occurred on the ground. The rushing attack has tallied 2,606 yards for an average of 5.5 yards per play and 14 touchdowns.
Fortunately for the Tar Heels, they have faced an abundance of read-option schemes this season, starting with McNeese State and running through N.C. State, with a variety of looks in between, including Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. First-year defensive coordinator Everett Withers has relied on his nickel package to help containment on the edges.
"They'll always have an extra guy down there someway somehow," WVU offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen said last week. "It's always a different guy so you have to account for it in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it's the weak safety, sometimes it's the SAM linebacker; sometimes it's a corner coming in from the boundary. There is always an extra hat in there versus what you're trying to do in the run game and you have to account for that each time you make a play call."
Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant – UNC's starting outside linebackers – both boast sub-4.5 40 speed, a characteristic that will be crucial in slowing down White and Devine on Saturuday.
* This is the second meeting between the two schools with UNC holding a 1-0 advantage. The two teams met in the 1997 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., with the Tar Heels winning 20-13.
* Stewart coached at North Carolina on two separate occasions – once as a graduate assistant in 1979 and then as an offensive line coach in 1985-87 under Dick Crum.