Keys to the West Virginia Game

Rich Rodriguez brings a rebuilt WVU team into Piscataway. Though young and struggling, the Mountaineers are still two games ahead of expectations. Rutgers is on pace with its preseason expectations. Expectations that did not anticipate a sudden demise of Pittsburgh. Rutgers has yet to play a good team. Much less beat one. The winner will assume first place in the Big East. Here are my five keys to a statement victory over West Virginia.




Last year, Rutgers narrowed the gap between itself and the upper echelon teams in a weakened Big East.  Rutgers was competitive in there of four losses to the league co-champions.  After sustaining a bad defeat at Pittsburgh, the Scarlet Knights rebounded with a strong effort at home against West Virginia.  Rutgers struggled to contain the powerful Mountaineer rushing attack and West Virginia hit two big pass plays.  Although the Scarlet Knight offense moved the ball effectively, four TOs short-circuited Rutgers' possessions and put the Scarlet Knights in a hole for most of the 1st Half.  West Virginia took a comfortable lead in the 1st Quarter; Rutgers came back.  West Virginia opened a comfortable lead in the 4th Quarter and held off a furious Rutgers comeback to escape with at 35-30 victory. 


On the first play from scrimmage, QB Ryan Hart underthrew TE Clark Harris on a corner route and Mountaineer FS Jahmile Addae intercepted the pass, giving West Virginia possession at the RU41.  Eight plays later, Mountaineer RB Pernell Williams scored on a 5-yard TD run.  A Rutgers 3-n-out gave West Virginia the ball at the WV44.  The Mountaineers launched an 8-play drive that culminated with an 8-yard TD run by QB Rasheed Marshall to give West Virginia an early 14-0 lead.  Rutgers again went 3-n-out after the KOR was downed at the RU06 and a shanked punt put West Virginia at the RU35 with a chance to deliver to the knockout punch.  But the Rutgers defense stiffened and Mountaineer PK Brad Cooper missed a 47-yard FGA.  Rutgers answered with a 10-play, 70-yard drive ending with a 27-yard TD pass to WR Tres Moses.  Rutgers again held West Virginia to a 3-n-out but Mountaineer P Phil Brady pinned RU at the RU02 at the end of the 1st Quarter. 


Rutgers drove to midfield but Mountaineer CB Dee McCann intercepted a badly underthrown flea-flicker at the WV12.  Rutgers held West Virginia to its third consecutive 3-n-out and took possession at the WV41 following a 32-yard punt.  Five plays later, Hart connected with WR Marcus Daniels on a 22-yard TD pass to tie the game at 14-14.  West Virginia reawakened and methodically drive 90 yards in 11 plays, scoring on a 3-yard TD run by RB Kay-Jay Harris.  Four plays later, McCann forced and recovered a fumble by WR Chris Baker at the RU40 but the Rutgers defense kept the Mountaineers from reaching scoring position.  Three plays after a West Virginia punt, McCann forced a fumble by TB Brian Leonard that West Virginia recovered at the RU29 with seconds remaining in the half.  But Cooper missed a 46-yard FGA as time expired, leaving West Virginia with a  21-14 lead at halftime. 


West Virginia opened the 2nd Half with a 3-n-out and gave Rutgers possession at midfield.  Rutgers stalled midway and PK Jeremy Ito nailed a 43-yard FG.  West Virginia picked up one first down and pinned Rutgers on the RU03 with a punt.  Rutgers drove into scoring range but was pushed back.  Ito punted from FG formation and pinned West Virginia at the WV10.  The Mountaineers drove 90 yards in 8 plays – sparked by a 69-yard bomb to WR Chris Henry – and scored on a 4-yard TD pass to WR Miquelle Henderson early in the 4th Quarter to extend the lead to 28-17.  Rutgers went 3-n-out and Marshall capped a 4-play, 55-yard drive with a 39-yard TD pass to Henry.  Rutgers answered with a 12-play, 71-yard drive finished with a 3-yard TD pass to Harris.  Rutgers forced a 3-n-out and mounted a 12-play, 80-yard drive ending with a 2-yard TD run by Leonard.  Rutgers failed on the 2XPA and trailed 35-30 with 1:"22 remaining.  West Virginia successfully recovered the onsides kick and ran out the clock. 


West Virginia Head Coach Rich Rodriguez brings a rebuilt team into Piscataway.  Rodriguez replaced 15 starters – including nine on offense.  This is the least imposing Mountaineer team since Rodriguez's first team in 2001.  West Virginia has struggled with its usually dominant rushing offense.  And a platoon of rookie QBs, though able to diversity the rushing attack, have not been able, with their passing, to keep opponents from stacking the line of scrimmage.  Fortunately, the Mountaineer defense has been rock solid, allowing the shaky offense to grind wins.  The young Mountaineers won road games at Syracuse and at Maryland.  Games they weren't expected to win.  Though West Virginia suffered a disappointing 34-17 loss to Virginia Tech, the Mountaineers are still two games ahead of expectations. 


Rutgers comes into the matchup off a big win Friday night on ESPN2 over Pittsburgh.  At 3-1, Rutgers is on pace with its preseason expectations.  But the sudden, unanticipated demise of Pittsburgh gave Rutgers an opportunity to be undefeated had the Scarlet Knights closed a bad Illinois team it led by 20 points in the 2nd Half.  Rutgers has yet to play a good team.  Much less beat one.  The win over Pittsburgh should be put into perspective.  Rutgers didn't rise to Pittsburgh's level; Pittsburgh plummeted to Rutgers stature.  Rutgers simply beat a team it should have beaten.  And the Scarlet Knights again showed the inability to put away an opponent, white-knuckling a game it led 27-0 at halftime.  With Virginia Tech last week and Louisville next week, some expect West Virginia to look past Rutgers.  I don't.  Rutgers has gotten West Virginia's attention with close games in 2003 and 2004.  And the win over Pittsburgh served notice that Rutgers can be dangerous.  The winner will assume first place in the Big East.  Here are my five keys to a statement victory over West Virginia. 





1.  Fast Start.  Against Pittsburgh, Rutgers raced out to a 17-0 1st Quarter lead that electrified the home crowd and energized the Scarlet Knights.  Rutgers used that fast start to build a 27-0 halftime lead that forced Pittsburgh to throw in the 2nd Half.  Rutgers needs another fast start against West Virginia.  The Mountaineer offense is struggling this year.  The Mountaineers are still a one-dimensional running team.  But the deep passing that complemented the rushing attack last year is missing.  West Virginia is averaging only 218 rushing yards per game.  While that ranks #16 in the nation, it is substandard for West Virginia.  Three of the four Mountaineer TBs are averaging less than 4 yards per carry.  Again, substandard.  West Virginia is averaging only 24 points per game, (#76 nationally).  West Virginia does not appear to have the firepower to win a shootout.  They will rely upon their defense and running game to grind a win.  Rutgers must turn the game into a track meet.  Not a slogging match.  Rutgers must score early and often.  The Scarlet Knights must pressure the West Virginia offense – and their young QBs – to keep the pace.  That pressure might result in a few mistakes upon which Rutgers can capitalize.  Rutgers must build a 14-point lead by halftime.  And maintain that lead through the 3rd Quarter.  That will force Rodriguez to choose between running (and burning the clock) or passing in the 4th Quarter.  Something that worked very well against run-dimensional Navy in 2003. 


2.  Eight-Man Front.  West Virginia is ranked #109 nationally in passing yardage at 142 yards per game.  RS So QB Adam Bednarik and RS Fr QB Pat White are completing 77% and 65% of their passes, respectively, but are not stretching the field.  West Virginia has been very one dimensional so far but less effective than usual.  Rutgers cannot let the Mountaineer ground attack thrive.  If West Virginia can throw when it wants, rather than when it must, the Rutgers defense will get gouged by both.  Schiano must put eight men in the box to throttle the West Virginia running game.  Both White and Bednarik carry the football.  Therefore, Rutgers cannot deploy two deep safeties because that will give West Virginia a +2 advantage at the line of scrimmage.  And the threat of the QB will force an unblocked defender to check the QB.  If Rutgers plays a two deep safeties, West Virginia will slowly bleed the Rutgers defense with running plays.  Schiano can play a Cover 2 scheme, but he should play both safeties shallow (8-10 yards) unless in long yardage situations.  Schiano also must mix in Cover 0 (pure man-to-man) and Cover 1 (one deep safety playing centerfield).  He should disguise these schemes to confuse the young Mountaineer QBs. 


In Cover 1, the WS should align in Cover 2 and creep up to LB depth during the cadence, into a 4-4 look.  In Cover 0, the safeties can align in a Cover 2 look and creep up during the cadence.  They will have man-to-man responsibilities on TEs or RBs on passes.  Otherwise, they should come up aggressively in run support.  The CBs will play lots of man-to-man.  They should mix press coverage with looser schemes.  And they should vary forcing inside or outside releases.  Schiano is also short on healthy safeties as both So FS Ron Girault and Fr WS Courtney Greene are questionable with hamstring injuries.  Schiano has true Fr Glenn Lee and walk-on Brandon Renkart as backups.  Schiano may need to deploy an extra LB in a 4-4 scheme to mile the contributions from his starters, especially against 2TE or 2RB/TE formations since Rodriguez isn't using a lot of multiple receiver sets.  Rutgers must hold West Virginia to less than 250 rushing yards. 


3.  Defending Misdirection.  The book on Rutgers reads that the Scarlet Knights defend misdirection poorly.  Illinois, Villanova, and Buffalo employed spread offenses that relied heavily upon misdirection with their running games.  Counters and zone options are two staple running plays of spread offenses.  Two plays that West Virginia uses frequently in its offense.  The Scarlet Knights must honor their assignments before pursuing the football.  Unblocked DEs must confirm that the Mountaineer QB doesn't have the football before chasing inside zone plays from behind, otherwise the QB will keep the bal and run around the undefended edge.  LBs must flow laterally on inside zone plays and fill gaps, preventing cutbacks against overpursuit.  DTs must get penetration into the backfield against zone blocking to disrupt cutback lanes instead of running along the line of scrimmage and opening cutback lanes.  LBs also must follow the football and not the blockers so they don't take themselves out of counter plays.  Rutgers must not allow more than two gains of 20+ yards on misdirection.  The Scarlet Knights also must not routinely allow nice gains (5+ yards) on misdirection that will enable West Virginia to quickly march down the field.  Rutgers must force West Virginia to drive the field methodically and must force the rookie QBs to convert on 3rd downs.  Defending misdirection will help that goal tremendously. 


4.  Run at ‘Em.  West Virginia has a tough rush defense, allowing only 88 rushing yards per game.  West Virginia's 3-3 defense essentially is a 3-5 scheme, with two safeties deployed as OLBs.  This gives West Virginia an eight-man front with speed on the outside.  It is tough to run outside on the Mountaineer defense.  However, the West Virginia defense is undersized.  Rutgers has shown in 2003 and moreso in 2004 that it can run straight ahead at the Mountaineers.  Iso and Power G are both straight ahead power running plays that have been successful against West Virginia in the past  Iso is a quick hitting play up the middle.  The C and OG double-team the NT and then the C combination blocks the MLB.  The other OG turns the DE out of the hole.  The FB leads on the OLB.  The TB follows the FB and reads his block.  It can get to the second quickly if blocked properly.  Power G develops more slowly.  The TE and strongside OT will double-team the DE and one will combination block the MLB.  The C will seal the backside DE.  The weakside OT will reach block the backside OLB.  The FB will kick out the SS and the weakside OG will pull and lead on the SLB.  The TB will follow the pulling guard through the hole.  Last year, Rutgers TBs gained 91 yards on 30 carries.  Rutgers must soften West Virginia inside with its power running game.  The Scarlet Knights TBs must gain at least 125 yards and must average at least 4 yards per carry. 


5.  Play Action Passing.  Rutgers was able to move the ball on the ground last year against West Virginia.  And that nicely setup the play action passing game.  I expect Rutgers to be able to run against West Virginia.  And the running game create opportunities for play-action passing.  Especially on 1st and 2nd downs.  The Mountaineer defense has been susceptible to the TE down the middle.  Rutgers must exploit that with Harris.  The 3-3 defense leaves a lot of real estate to be covered by two CBs and a FS.  Rutgers must attack the entire field off play action.  FB drags in the flats.  Slants, deep ins, and deep crossings to the WRS.  Plus seams and corners by the TEs.  Rutgers must set a fast scoring tempo.  Rutgers must pass for at least 250 yards.  Play action passing is the best way to accomplish that goal. 





1.  Sr QB Ryan Hart.  As Hart goes, so goes this team.  When he plays well, Rutgers fires on all cylinders.  When he struggles, the high-octane offense sputters.  The defense is now down two starters, with two more starters questionable.  The defense did not perform well against weak opposition.  Now it moves up in class.  Rutgers is going to win in spite of its defense, not because of it. That will put tremendous pressure on the offense to score.  I predicted Rutgers would need 30 and 35 points to beat Illinois and Pittsburgh, respectively.  So far, Hart is having a mediocre season.  Sure, he has only thrown two INTs (one not his fault).  But he must do more than simply not lose games.  He must execute this high-powered offense stockpiled with All-Big East talents.  He is completing only 58% of his passes and inaccurate throws are leaving much YAC on the field.  He must be more proficient.  He must complete at least 65% of his passes for at least 250 yards.  He must move the chains on 3rd down.  And throw twice as many TDs as INTs.  HE must lead his team to victory. 


2.  RS Jr TE Clark Harris.  Harris caught six passes for 49 yards against West Virginia last year.  On the first play from scrimmage, West Virginia bit o play action and Harris was open deep on a corner route.  West Virginia fans have complained of an inability to cover opposing TEs.  This would appear to be a situation ripe for exploiting with Rutgers First Team All-Big East TE.  Harris must stretch the Mountaineer defense vertically and find the seams between the three deep DBs.  Harris has yet to have a big game.  Now is the time.  Harris must catch at least five passes for at least 100 yards and a TD.  He must create a huge mismatch for the Mountaineer defense to cover. 


3.  Sr WLB Will Gilkison.  Gilkison is averaging 6 tackles per game against primarily pass-oriented, spread offenses.  He has not been tested appreciably in run support.  That changes Saturday.  West Virginia will primarily run the football.  And secondarily run the football.  The Scarlet Knight LBs will be the primary line of defense behind a front four that will be frequently double-teamed with zone blocking.  Gilkison will be responsible for flowing laterally and filling any holes that open.  He cannot get sucked forward into traffic that will prevent him from pursuing laterally.  He must follow the football and not the motion.  He must be in position to seal the backside against counters and cutbacks.  He must register at least 8 tackles and 2 TFLs. 


4.  Sr SLB William Beckford.  Nearly two years removed from an ACL injury suffered at West Virginia, Beckford has not realized the promise of his sophomore campaign.  Last year, he was not fully recovered from this injury and lacked the lower body strength to hold his ground against opponents, even WRs.  Though he started 8 games, he finished with only 44 tackles.  Beckford lost his starting job in summer camp to Gilkison.  The season-ending knee injury to starting SLB Terry Bynes has created an opportunity for Beckford, who will start at SLB.  Like Gilkison, Beckford will be tested by misdirection.  He must not overpursue and he must plug holes against the physical Mountaineers.  The knock on Beckford is that he's a weight room warrior who is soft on the field.  He must shed that moniker and make plays off the edge.  He must record at least 8 tackles, 3 TFLs, and a sack.  And he must force a TO.   


5.  Jr TB Justise Hairston.  Hairston has not played in four games.  This might be a good week to give him a shot.  Fr TB Ray Rice has run well in three of four games this year as the starting TB.  However, Rice has yet to face a tough rush defense.  Hairston gained 99 yards on 27 carries against West Virginia two years ago.  Hairston did most of his damage between the tackles, where his power enabled him to drive Mountaineer tacklers backwards.  Hairston struggled running Power G last year, repeatedly running too quickly through the wrong hole and gaining minimal yardage on pure brute strength.  He lacked the patience to read his blocks and allow the hole to open.  However, Hairston runs iso as good, if not better than, any other Rutgers TB.  He hits the hole quickly and powerfully.  If the hole isn't completely open, he can blow through it with his strength.  If the hole is open, Justise can punish the FS coming up to close the hole.  Hairston, in combination with Leonard, may provide Schiano with his combination with which to batter the Mountaineer defense.  If Hairston does play, he must be more than a one-trick pony (iso).  He must show patience on Power G and hit the hole off-tackle.  If give the opportunity, Justise must gain at least 50 yards rushing. 



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