Sat 11/13/10 12:00 PM
UConn L 13-16
TV: Big East
Syracuse L 7-31
Series: WVU 14-3-1
First Meeting: 1921
Last Meeting: 2009
MATCH-UPS AND STORYLINES
WVU pass rush vs. UC quarterback Zach Collaros
There are several angles to this key portion of the game – any of which could prove critical in determining the winner.
First, there's the basic face-off itself. Collaros, a mobile passer who can turn potential sacks into first downs, is unlike any of the QBs West Virginia has faced in this year. While the Mountaineers have defended runners such as USF's B.J. Daniels and LSU's Jordan Jefferson, they haven't faced a player who can do significant, consistent damage with both his arm and his legs. Collaros, if fully healthy, presents a problem to WVU's pass rush, and to its defensive strategy as a whole. Do the Mountaineers blitz a bit less and emphasize staying in lanes to try to keep Collaros in the pocket, or do they go with a more all-out approach and try to swarm him before he can make a decision and get the ball away?
There's no one answer, as West Virginia will certainly mix up its rushes and tactics in an effort to keep Collaros off-balance. But it will be interesting to see which threat, the scramble or the pass, WVU is more concerned with.
The second is the health of Collaros. UC anticipates that he will be ready to go against the Mountaineers, but will he have the same nifty moves and ability to scramble as he does when he's at 100%? Will the Bearcats still be willing to run him a few times in order to keep the rush at bay, and force blitzers to check against that possibility? It's an intriguing subplot to the action up front.
A third factor is UC's porous offensive line. While it has shown signs of improvement, the Bearcats have given up 24 sacks this year. Will West Virginia try to bring more pressure than it typically does in order to take advantage of that deficiency, or will the Mountaineers stick with what has worked so far – tactics that have brought it several top five defensive rankings this season?
Finally, will this be the week that West Virginia's four-man defensive front makes its reappearance? WVU hasn't shown it at all since designated rusher Will Clarke went down with an ankle injury against Marshall. It's true that WVU doesn't appear to have suffered much defensively without that option, and have still been able to generate pass pressure and sacks with a combination of its three man front and additional rushers from the second level. However, there's no doubt that it would be a bonus to have the four-man line, with three very tall rushers (Clarke, Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller) getting their hands up in the passing lanes.
WVU downfield passing vs. UC cornerbacks Rueben Johnson and Camerron Cheatham
The Bearcats' sophomore corners have played well in their first seasons as starters, but look for West Virginia to test them with a few deep passes.
Is once per quarter too great a rate to test the deep ball? Game circumstances can often change tactics, but going in West Virginia should be committed to trying to hit its speedy receivers on deep routes. Bradley Starks has shown the ability to hit the home run, and Jock Sanders was open (and just missed) a long effort against UConn. Add in Tavon Austin (who had just one catch against the Huskies) and it appears the Mountaineers do have the weapons to attack deep.
There remains, of course, the problem of protection, and of giving quarterback Geno Smith the time to wait while receivers get downfield. That's not something to be ignored, but hopefully the extra week of review time has given the coaching staff the ability to work on tweaks for protection.
If WVU does go deep, watch for the positions from which it comes. Those deep routes don't always have to be run from the wide receiver spots, and hopefully the Mountaineers will make use of some of the speed it can line up at slot receiver to attack downfield there as well.
THINGS TO WATCH
West Virginia's return game has been, in a word, dismal. The Mountaineers are last in the Big East in both punt and kickoff returns, and have generated just one big play (Jock Sanders' 66-yard punt return) all year. Take that return out of the mix, WVU is averaging a life-support-worthy 4.5 yards per punt return.
Pinpointing the cause of those woes is difficult. WVU certainly has the speed to generate good runbacks, but that's only a small part of the return equation. Blockers must sustain contact, and returners must set up and use those blocks in a manner that's decidedly different from other open field running. If speed were all that mattered, return teams would be loaded with sprinters and track guys.
As we've noted in this space before, there's a synergy, a chemistry, that plays a huge role in successful returns. Some players simply have a knack for sifting through traffic to create yardage (Former WVU return man Nate Terry is a prime example.) Others, such as Lance Frazier, excelled at catching the ball cleanly and getting the most out of every return. There's also the teamwork required to set up return schemes successfully – with little live work to build on, it can be difficult to forge that through practice.
Watch the front of West Virginia's returns against the Bearcats. On kickoffs, are the Mountaineers getting the coverage team spread out? Are they creating seams in the coverage? Are the returners taking advantage of those, and getting to the point of the return quickly? On punt returns, is West Virginia catching the ball? Are they sustaining blocks to any degree?
Cincinnati isn't much better than WVU, ranking sixth in the league in both categories. The team that creates a big play in the return game could have a big leg up in getting the win.
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From my spots along the sidelines and the end zones during games, I try to keep a finger on the emotional pulse of the team. Trying to make judgments based on observations during games along can lead to inaccurate conclusions, so I don't make blanket statements about the intensity or the state of mind of the team, because such a snapshot can be misleading in the long view. However, in the short term, such as for that particular game, it can be revealing. What does WVU's bench look like? Does it seem like players are into the game? (We're not talking about the redshirts and others that aren't playing – watch those guys that are on the field. Are they interacting with their position coaches? Picking each other up? Or is the opposite in evidence? This week's game is a critical one, in many respects, and the way in which the team has handled the adversity of the past three weeks will play a major factor in how this week's contest comes out. Between plays, sneak some looks toward the sideline, and see if you can judge the approach the Mountaineers are taking.
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He won't get much support as a Big East Defensive Player of the Year candidate, because he plays a position that doesn't rack up big numbers, but he's arguably the best defensive player in the league. So take a moment to watch WVU's Chris Neild as he holds his spot in the middle of West Virginia's defensive line.
Yes, you know he's good, because we've told you so. But take a few minutes this week to watch him and see why he's good, and what he does. Neild doesn't just hold his ground on the defensive front. He gets penetration in the backfield. He forces blockers off their intended paths, and doesn't allow himself to get moved where they want him to go. And as conventional wisdom holds, he occupies blockers to free up WVU's linebackers and safeties to make tackles.
Take a few plays to watch Neild work at his craft. He doesn't always make the tackle, but he can get penetration that causes a running back to reroute his path – and the resulting loss of time often allows teammate to arrive for tackles. He rarely gets knocked backward, and maintains his balance and positioning as well as any WVU defensive lineman in memory. He can chase down plays on the perimeter, and he doesn't take plays off. Unfortunately for West Virginia, he only has five games left as a Mountaineer. Be sure to appreciate what he brings to WVU's nationally ranked defense.