Match-Ups: WVU - Marshall

Behind the manufactured hype and acrimony surrounding the West Virginia - Marshall game, there are actual football issues to be discussed. Game Scorecard
Fri 9/10/10 7:00 PM

Huntington, WV

Joan C. Edwards Stadium
Record: 1-0
Coaches Poll: 22
Last Game
Coastal Carolina W 31-0
Radio: MSN
Record: 0-1
Coaches Poll: NR
Last Game
Ohio St L 45-7
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2009 Schedule

Series: WVU 9-0
First Meeting: 1911
Last Meeting: 2009
Press Release
Season Stats
2010 Schedule

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WVU cornerbacks Keith Tandy and Brandon Hogan vs. Marshall wide receiver Aaron Dobson

West Virginia's downfield pass defense wasn't tested much against Coastal Carolina. The Mountaineers picked off one of the two deeper routes the Chants attempted, and didn't allow anything to be completed in deep zones. The Herd, however, has the weapons to stress WVU's deep pass coverage.

Dobson is the chief of those threats. A tall, lanky receiver with good hands and body control, he figures to get some chances to outduel West Virginia's talented, but shorter, cornerbacks. Herd head coach Doc Holliday will certainly be looking to get some big plays of his own to match the potential of the same form West Virginia's offense, and Dobson, with his ability, could be the player to watch in this role.

That success also depends on Marshall's ability to protect the quarterback and allow deep routes to develop, and that factoid also leads to some interesting developments to keep an eye on. WVU displayed a good pass rush (but no sacks) against Coastal's quick-release attack, while the Herd gave up just one sack to Ohio State. Will WVU be able to generate more pressure and force early throws, or will the MU line be able to give Brian Anderson the time he needs to target Dobson downfield?

For Tandy and Hogan, positioning and consistency are the keys. They can't get caught looking into the backfield, especially on early downs when Marshall may try to get the ball downfield while the Mountaineers are thinking run. They will also need to be aggressive at the line and try to disrupt Dobson off the ball. If he's allowed to run free, the Herd will have a good chance to get the big plays they are looking for.

WVU punter Gregg Pugnetti vs. Marshall punter Kase Whitehead

The battle of field position is often met with yawns from many observers, who view a punt as just another break to hit the fridge or concession stand. But in most games, it's a major determinant in the way the action unfolds, and punters have a huge impact on the outcome.

Gregg Pugnetti
Whitehead has been a capable punter through his career, averaging 38.8 yards per kick. That's reasonable, and not a mark likely to do much damage to the Herd. The far less experienced Pugnetti, however, is off to a fast start, averaging 49.2 yards in his first career action against Coastal Carolina. Put those two figures up against each other, and that's a 10-yard advantage for the Mountaineers on every exchange of kicks – a figure that shouldn't be boring to anyone. West Virginia is currently second in the nation in net punting after allowing the Chants just three yards on two returns.

A simple cut-and-dried comparison of the averages doesn't tell the whole tale, however. Several variables come into play that make this match-up one to watch. First, averages don't take into account where the kicks came from on the field, or how they behaved once in play. Pugnetti's average was boosted by a 71-yard effort that rolled some 25 yards to the CCU one. An average can also be affected by short kicks that are placed out of bounds to pin opponents deep, thus sacrificing average for the good of the team. Environmental factors, such as wind and rain, can also come into play.

With all of those things to watch, keeping track of the punters' ability to "flip the field" is worth the effort. Will Pugnetti continue his strong start? Will Whitehead summon a couple more yards per kick to give his team an edge? While it may not be as exiting as a long pass or run, keeping an eye on the field position battle, especially as the punters impact it, is certainly a worthwhile battle to watch.


One thing we're going to tell you not to watch: The "face-off" between the coaches or all of the things that are dreamed up as angles, including sign stealing, showing up former coaches, etc. Much of this stuff goes to ridiculous levels. Noel Devine was asked if he would think about Doc Holliday being on the opposing sideline when the ball was snapped on Friday. Are you kidding? Players have enough to concentrate on without thinking about who's watching them or who's standing on the sidelines. Maybe after the game some of this stuff gets a bit of consideration, but keeping focus on the game is still job one for the players. Get caught up in all of the blatantly manufactured hype, and a drop in performance is almost sure to result.

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Marshall star tight end Cody Slate is gone, but that doesn't mean Marshall will cease attacking West Virginia in the middle of the field. The Herd still has an excellent weapon in tight end Lee Smith, and there's no doubt that MU will try to repeat the success they had at the position a year ago, when Slate caught 10 balls for 102 yards against the Mountaineers.

Making the defensive assignment a bit more difficult is the shuffling at linebacker, where West Virginia will again likely be without Pat Lazear. Look for WVU to try to provide help again with its safeties – perhaps sticking with the move of Robert Sands to bandit to bring him more directly into play against those mid-range passes.

* * *

Much is made of the headaches that West Virginia's offensive speed – particularly that of Noel Devine, Jock Sanders and Tavon Austin – causes opposing defenses. However, WVU hasn't yet used that speed to its full use, especially in terms of going downfield.

While WVU does attack the edges of the defense with speed, using a variety of swing and screen passes as well as orbit sweeps and ends around, it does not consistently attack foes downfield with those same players. The occasional deep ball is thrown, but is it enough to truly keep defenses honest? And does just throwing the ball up deep, without completing a couple, really get safeties and corners from crowding the line of scrimmage and short zones?

Without that threat, defenses are still going to bring their secondaries closer to the line of scrimmage, where they can assist in corralling West Virginia's speed before it can be used to maximum effect. Beating one defender on the corner is one thing, but trying to do the same with a safety close by and a linebacker coming in pursuit is something else. In order to create the space it needs, WVU must figure out a way to make teams respect its downfield passing game.

Whether there's a magic number in terms of deep balls to attempt is open to debate, as is the wisdom of taking the ball out of the hands of Noel Devine in order to do so. No matter how it's accomplished, however, West Virginia must develop a method of getting those defenders off the line of scrimmage.

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