Match-Ups: WVU - UConn

Some traditional and one non-traditional themes bear close watching as West Virginia travels to UConn for a Friday night primetime clash.

BlueGoldNews.com Game Scorecard
Fri 10/28/10 8:00 PM

Hartford, CT

Rentschler Field
Record: 5-2
BCS: NR
Last Game
Syracuse L 19-14
TV: ESPN2
Radio: MSN
Web: BlueGoldNews.com
Record: 3-4
BCS: NR
Last Game
Louisville L 26-0
Rosters/ Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2010 Schedule

Series: WVU 6-0
First Meeting: 2004
Last Meeting: 2009
Rosters/Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2010 Schedule

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MATCH-UPS AND STORYLINES

WVU pass coverage vs. UConn tight end Ryan Griffin

With problems at quarterback, the Huskies will likely try to ride their running game to a ball-control victory, but when they go to the air, look for short, controlled passes from Zach Frazer to Ryan Griffin as a staple of the UConn attack.

UConn has battled quarterback problems all season. Cody Endres has been dismissed from the team, and Mike Box, in his first start, completed just four of 12 passes against Louisville before being knocked from the game with a concussion. That puts the strat back on Zach Frazer for the West Virginia game, and given his performance to date he likely won't be asked to sling the ball all over the field. Fortunately, at least for UConn, that fits well with Griffin, who works short and intermediate zones well. He's a big target that sets up nicely and finds holes in pass coverage, and he will be an issue for West Virginia's underneath pass coverage. The Mountaineers have been vulnerable to the sorts of routes that Griffin will run, and it stands to reason that UConn will try to exploit some of those issues.

Last year, the Huskies moved the ball well in both phases against WVU, totaling 501 yards, including 378 through the air. While it's not likely to approach that figure in this game, the Huskies could still feature the pass as an effective, yet safe, weapon as they play their normal run-first offensive scheme.

West Virginia will need to be patient against these tactics, and not panic if the Huskies hit a couple of passes or pick up a few first downs. UConn isn't likely to show the same quick-strike capability it did a year ago, so if the Mountaineers can force the home team to grind out long drives, it should be able to force the mistake that usually crops up to stop such possessions. While West Virginia will again make stopping the run, and UConn star Jordan Todman, its main goal, it can't sell out or ignore threat which the short passing game poses.


WVU team vs. Halloween

O.K, we know that the Mountaineers aren't facing an assortment of ghouls and goblins in this game. But the team is going to be trying to defeat the specters of last week's poor play, as well as the gremlins that have plagued the offense and special teams at time this season.



Admittedly, many times, these themes are over-analyzed. "Bouncing back from a loss" is trotted out every time a team suffers a defeat, and that line of questioning doubles when the setback was unexpected. Still, there's a mental aspect to this week's game that looms as an important one for WVU. When a team doesn't play up to its potential, how does it respond?

The idea that West Virginia will come out breathing fire is a tough one to agree with, given the fact that this team doesn't show a great deal of emotion. As I've noted elsewhere, that doesn't mean the Mountaineers don't, or won't, play with intensity, but it's hard to picture this team steamrollering an opponent. Instead, we should be looking for signs that West Virginia learned its lesson from the Syracuse loss.

Granted, that can be an exercise without concrete touchstones to mark. WVU obviously needs to perform better offensively. But some of the 'little things' such as tackling more crisply, not dropping passes, eliminating obvious blown assignments and the like are signs that preparation and focus have been taken more seriously. It can be difficult to make a list of these items, but in watching a team play, it's usually apparent if it isn't taking the game seriously, or hasn't prepared with the proper amount of intensity. Can WVU bury the demons of an unexpected loss? Or will they continue to haunt the Mountaineers?


THINGS TO WATCH

After watching the pass rush and blitz packages of Syracuse give West Virginia major problems, it would be natural to assume that UConn will try to duplicate the schemes and tactics of the Orange. Natural, but probably not 100% correct. While the Huskies can be expected to try to pressure Geno Smith and confuse WVU's pass protectors, they likely won't be able to duplicate the manner in which Syracuse did so. Why? Because UConn probably doesn't have all of those same schemes in its defensive package, and three days of practice isn't enough time to add them, practice them, and become proficient enough at them to make them effective.

"Making adjustments" is a catch phrase used by coaches and fans alike, and certainly UConn will try to learn from last week's game film and implement some tweaks that it hopes WVU won't be able to respond to. But if the Huskies don't have a full zone blitz scheme in place that it has worked on for much of the year, it's just not feasible to install and work on a major change such as that in such a short period of time. It's a matter of degree. Some changes, and maybe a different rush tactic? Certainly. An entirely new scheme, built on what it saw in last week's film? No way.

That's not to say, however, that UConn won't blitz. After all, the Huskies brought the kitchen sink against West Virginia a year ago, so it's not like anyone is expecting them to sit back in Cover 3 and play zone with seven or eight pass defenders. We'd just advise that getting past what they do and looking at how they do it could be very instructive in how teams prepare from week to week.

So, the challenge here is to watch what UConn does on passing downs. Are the Huskies always bringing all of their linemen and the occasional additional rushers? How many times do they drop linemen back into coverage, or bring overload rushes at one or two gaps, while leaving others vulnerable? Head coach Randy Edsall showed that he's not afraid to blitz, but he probably won't get away from the sorts of schemes that the Huskies have used all year. Making radical changes without the time to prepare and practice them can often do more harm than good.

* * *

UConn linebacker Scott Lutrus has been a force for the Huskies throughout his career, but the senior hasn't been himself since returning to the lineup from an injury three games ago. Lutrus, according to thinking around the UConn camp, has been somewhat tentative after suffering a shoulder injury, and hasn't had quite the same all-out closing speed and pursuit that he has shown in the past.

That thought shouldn't be interpreted as meaning Lutrus has lost his nerve or desire to play hard. (In any event, it comes from UConn, not here.) It could be, as his coach suggest, simply an outgrowth of missing some games. But it wouldn't be a bad idea to watch Lutrus (#32) on some early possession to see how he is playing, and if he's getting to the point of attack with his usual ability. A player who once had 18 tackles in a game (Louisville, 2007), Lutrus is a three-year letterman who has been an anchor of a usually stout UConn defense. If he plays well, the UConn defense typically follows.

* * *

Everyone has their solutions to West Virginia's offensive woes, Run more. Throw deep more. Change personnel. Change systems. Change sets. Fire coaches. I don't know that any of those things are a magic bullet, but I do think, at times, that stubbornness (I'm not sure what other word to use) pervades the offensive approach.

For example, head coach Bill Stewart noted that WVU needed to develop the ability to run out of a power set with big backs in order to pick up third down and short yardage conversions, and also to control the ball when need be. I don't think there could be any disagreement with that. But at times, the Mountaineers have gone exclusively to that strategy, often giving the ball to the same back five or six consecutive times. The same was true of the horizontal screens against USF and the four and five wide receiver sets in the past couple of games.

I certainly wouldn't contest the logic in either of those decisions, or of other play-calling choices. It just seems that at times the Mountaineers get married to a tactical decision, and don't try other options when those initial plans don't work out. Is this the week when West Virginia can show a mix of determination to execute its plan, but also switch up when things don't go as planned? I understand that execution is the other side of the equation, and that tactically, the decisions that are made with the game plan are sound. Beating them into the ground, though, isn't something that is going to produce wins.


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