Match-Ups: West Virginia - USF

When West Virginia hosts USF in the Mountaineers' Big East opener on Thursday night, these confrontations will go a long way in determining the outcome. Game Scorecard
Thu 10/14/10 7:30 PM

Morgantown, WV

Mountaineer Field
Record: 4-1
Coaches' Poll: 25
Last Game
UNLV W 49-10
Radio: MSN
Record: 3-2
Coaches' Poll: NR
Last Game
Syracuse L 13-9
Rosters/ Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2010 Schedule

Series: USF 3-2
First Meeting: 2005
Last Meeting: 2009
Press Release
Season Stats
2010 Schedule

Click for Morgantown, West Virginia Forecast


WVU edge rushers vs. USF quarterback B. J. Daniels

A year ago, Daniels' scrambling ability led to some key runs and two long passes that allowed the Bulls to squeak by the Mountaineers in Tampa. West Virginia's ability to keep Daniels contained and collapse the pocket will be key in preventing a repeat of that occurrence in Morgantown on Thursday night.

Labeling Daniels as just a runner would be a mistake, as he has a strong arm and the ability to complete passes downfield. However, it's his scrambling ability that makes him doubly dangerous – and in fact, enhances his passing ability as well. When Daniels gets out of the pocket and moves around behind the line of scrimmage, he forces defense to react, and those moves often resulting gaps in coverage which he and his receivers can exploit. Those aren't five- or ten-yard gains either. Daniels looks to capitalize on those occurrences with deep downfield strikes, and its not uncommon to see him to just that.

To avoid those plays, West Virginia must be disciplined in its pass rush. It can't lose edge containment, and when it blitzes, it still has to be sure not to leave gaps in the rush which Daniels can slip through. That's a difficult task, because a number of West Virginia's blitzes depend on overloading a section of the pass protection. Those can, at times, leave other areas open, and if Daniels can identify them, he can hurt WVU on the ground.

So far this year, it seems as if there's more emphasis on trying to develop Daniels as a pocket passer – and that's definitely to the detriment of the Bulls. While he might well want to go to the NFL, the fact is that he's at his best when he's allowed to freelance and run around, both in the pocket and downfield when protection breaks down. Take that away from him, and he's not nearly as effective.

WVU passing game vs. USF pass rush

In previous seasons, it was the Bulls' run defense, dedicated to stopping Pat White, Steve Slaton and Noel Devine, that stood in the spotlight. This year, while the run is still a factor, the focus could be on a different aspect of the Mountaineer attack.

Geno Smith
West Virginia, averaging 229 passing yards per game, has become more efficient at throwing the ball, especially against defenses that have loaded up to stop the run. No team did that better over the past four years than the Bulls, who parlayed a clogging scheme with great talent up front to stifle West Virginia's explosiveness. This year, however, WVU seems to have at least a partial answer for such tactics, but the Bulls are still capable of countering those moves with a pass rush that has been ferocious at times.

On the USF side, the Bulls have recorded 14 sacks, with nine different players getting in on the takedown party. While it's true that half of that number came against Florida Atlantic, there's still no denying that USF has a solid corps of players that can put pressure on the passer. While they probably don't have an individual talent that approaches a George Selvie or Jason Pierre-Paul, who have departed for the NFL, they do have a number of individuals that can get into the pocket. Even with some changes in the defensive scheme, USF is still attacking the line of scrimmage and getting upfield. They've recorded 29 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and are allowing just 155 passing yards per game.

West Virginia has faced blitzing defenses all year, and had the ability to make those sorts of tactics painful for opponents. The offensive line has improved its pass blocking from a year ago, and while quarterback Geno Smith has had to dodge pressure on some occasions, he's shown the ability to do that while keeping his focus downfield to find open receivers.

While conventional wisdom says to employ maximum protection by keeping an extra blocker or two in the protection scheme against big blitzes, there's another way to handle them – deploy more receivers than a defense can cover if it chooses to blitz. By getting four or five receivers in the pattern, West Virginia can force USF, as it has other foes, to make a choice – either get to the quarterback quickly, or deal with an open receiver (hopefully one with good speed) with room to run. Although this means that the defense will be bringing more defenders than can be dealt with one-on-one, it's a risky maneuver – especially against Smith, who is rapidly maturing into a calm field commander.

Keep an eye on USF's pass rush tactics, and also on West Virginia's response. The Mountaineers may well keep a fullback or a tight end in to block on occasions, but they might just as plausibly go five wide and try to find and hit the open receiver before the blitz can get home.


The Bulls have throttled the Mountaineer attack over the past four seasons, holding WVU to 19, 13, 13, and 19 points in those games. However, a variety of factors that were present in those games aren't in place for this year's contest, so are those past occurrences an indicator of what can be expected in this game?

USF jammed up West Virginia's zone reads and wide receiver screens in previous years, but those plays haven't been a staple of WVU's attack this year. Neither are designed quarterback runs, although the Mountaineer coaching staff does throw one or two of those into the game plan in order to make sure foes are still checking the QB run. Although that's certainly not Smith's forte, if teams aren't guarding against it, he has the ability to make some yardage and force defenses to adjust.

USF, on the other hand, has undergone a coaching change, and while it is still running a 4-3 defense, there are changes in the way in which it is doing so. Also gone are five players who are now in the NFL – a fact that many discount or overlook entirely. While schemes and tactics can have an effect on the outcome of a game, it usually comes down to players – those that play better are usually the winners.

Of course, there are some advantages in place for USF. Skip Holtz, while implementing his system, is familiar with West Virginia, and there's no doubt that makes up front preparation a bit simpler, if not easier. He, along with defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, late of Marshall, know much of the personnel and many of the things West Virginia does offensively, so they have a least a base to prepare from. The question is, how much of what they did at their previous stops will they bring with them to this game? Do they revert to some of the things USF has done in previous years, or will there be more of an ECU and Marshall flavor to what they do defensively?

WVU has likely been watching not only USF video from this year, but also some cuts from past Herd and Pirate games to try to get a good grasp on what the Mountaineers will face on Thursday night.

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With running back Demetris Murray's playing status in doubt this week due to a recurring ankle injury, how will the Bulls try to compensate on the ground? Murray and sixth-year teammate Mo Plancher have teamed up to average 123 yards per game this year, but if Murray's out, the synergy of that pairing is lost.

USF could give more carries to Plancher, or it could offload some of that work to Marcus Shaw, who has gained 104 yards on just ten carries this year, but the guess here is that it will lean more on Daniels, whose running was such a big key a year ago. Don't be surprised to see some options, quarterback draws and other designed runs for the Bull quarterback. Holtz certainly is no stranger to such plays, having utilized them with longtime ECU QB Patrick Pinkney during his time with the Pirates. Holtz has said that Shaw and freshman Bradley Battles might be in line for some more carries, but when has a head coach ever totally tipped his strategic hand?

* * *

Both teams have played very well defensively in 2010, and while that could lead to a low scoring game, it also puts more pressure on the hidden yardage to be gained in the punt game. USF is allowing a third down conversion rate of just 32%, while West Virginia's is even better at a stellar 25%. Thus, both teams are forcing a lot of punts. WVU has faced 33 punts this year, while the Bulls have forced foes to kick it away 28 times.

If those numbers hold true in Thursday night's game, then there could be a field position game played out as the teams exchange boots. Which team will not only kick the ball better, but cover better? Will one team be able to break a return and flip the field back in the opposite direction? As you watch the game, keep track of the yardage gained when each team punts. Does one end up with a net edge after punt exchanges? In a game that figures, by the book, to be a low scoring one, those extra few yards could be the difference in a scoring drive.

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