A Look Inside...Game Four

It's arguably the most anticipated home match-up for West Virginia since No. 1 Ohio State opened the 1998 season – and yet LSU arrives as a sort of afterthought this weekend because of conference realignment. Hopefully this serves as a cold-water wake-up for fans: The game is nearly upon us.

BlueGoldNews.com Game Scorecard
Sat 9/24/10 8:00 PM

Morgantown, WV

Mountaineer Field
Record: 3-0
Polls: 16/16
Last Game
Maryland W 37-31
Radio: MSN/Sirius
Web: BlueGoldNews.com
Record: 3-0
Polls: 3/2
Last Game
Miss St W 19-6
Rosters/ Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2011 Schedule

Series: LSU 1-0
First Meeting: 2010
Last Meeting: 2010
Press Release
Season Stats
2011 Schedule

Click for Morgantown, West Virginia Forecast

Let's take a look inside the top 20 interconference contest that could well have national title implications.

The No. 16 Mountaineers have shown solid improvement each week, and are undoubtedly a better-honed team than they were at the start of the year. It appears, though, that No. 2 LSU has done the same – led by what many consider the best defense in college football.

  • That written, how can LSU be attacked? West Virginia needs to do a series of things. This will be the final time for a few weeks that I will harp on this, but it's as imperative as anything other than turnovers. WVU must stalemate the Tigers up front, and somehow overcome a numbers and, frankly, talent differential. Across the board, the line must have the best performance of the season and be able to at least stem the rush and provide Geno Smith the time and comfort he needs to locate wideouts challenging to-level defensive backs. If this can't be accomplished, nothing else matters.

  • Onto point two: The Tigers have enough ability that, like Miami through the late 1980s and 90s, they don't disguise a lot. They beat you with flat out better playmakers and depth that just jeeps coming. However, for LSU to think this is the same style of offense it faced against Oregon or Mississippi State would be a colossal mistake. The Mountaineers possess the finest fleet of receivers LSU has seen thus far, and the quickness and speed offered might surprise. That, combined with fairly basic defenses and Smith's patience bodes well. I expect West Virginia's receivers to get open. Check the battles in space here and see if I'm correct, or if LSU's vaunted defensive backfield is as smothering as experts anticipate.
    WVU O vs. LSU D
      WVU LSU
    Scoring 42 ppg 12 ppg
    Rushing 78.7 ypg 47.7 ypg
    Passing 356 ypg 160 ypg
    With the combo of very good athletes, Smith's touch and Dana Holgorsen's built-in offensive in-play options, tight coverage is hard to maintain. This isn't the typical offense, where there are few in-play choices. This is all in-play choice, and if an offensive player doesn't know where he is going until a split second before it happens, the defensive player isn't as likely to be able to read much, either.

    Also, keep an eye on who Holgorsen uses in his offense. Does he want to match his athletes against those of LSU? Is he looking to exploit seams and have players who better secure the ball, but perhaps don't have the excess speed or quickness? How much is he throwing laterally, which can be snuffed quickly, against vertically? WVU will have no advantages in speed this game, and the quick bubble screens could meet fast demise. I'd guess there will be a plethora of midrange routes, short enough to allow the line to protect, but getting upfield enough where it isn't a race to the corner, which can be better timed by a defense, but the race to the open area of the field. There will be some; it's up to Smith and the wideouts to find and exploit it.

  • Within the running game, does West Virginia continue to attack with the smaller backs, or does it try to play a bit bigger and pound away, the idea being the best way to negate speed is to run right at it. I'm not sure either will work well, but some misdirection goes quite a way in slowing pursuit and keeping LSU honest. Counters take too long to develop and aren't a major part of the game for WVU. But a few fake reverses or varying directional runs out of the shotgun could very much aid all. Even if slowed, the Mountaineers can't totally abandon the running game, and will need to grind a few yards out simply to maintain the idea that it could run if the Tigers present the opportunity.

  • Also, check the tempo. Once Holgorsen gets rolling, he isn't one to shut it down. This won't be a game where, even if WVU goes ahead 14 points late in the third, that the offense begins to try to run much clock. This is a timing, snowball-downhill style, and it needs to be maintained. Holgorsen has said West Virginia might never get to the pace desired this season. But is it going fast enough to wear down the Tigers? Are the plays being ripped off quickly enough where bringing in that depth is tough, if not impossible? If that happens, those extra numbers won't matter nearly as much. LSU is not used to playing very fast-paced teams, and Oregon never really got rolling enough, at least partially because a timing offense needs a few weeks to ready itself. West Virginia, by now, has had several games to get that timing down. Time to show up or shut up.

  • Finally, a confidence check. Is West Virginia jittery at the start? Are there dropped passes, or lack of flow in plays because of the big stage? There isn't much doubt the Mountaineers will settle down, especially in front of the home crowd, but how long does it take? And how does LSU hold up, not playing often in an unfamiliar environment that promises to be loud until they do something to quiet it? This, as much as anything, is part of the emotional development and maturity of a team.

  • One last time on the defensive side as well: Interior line play. Perhaps the single most important aspect other than big plays and tackling is being able to hold up in the trench. If LSU's sizeable offensive front and push the nose tackle back sans a double team, the remainder of the Mountaineer front becomes more compromised. Bruce Irvin is having a hard enough time manning every down duty. He can't overcome a double team on routine, non-pin-the-ears-back downs. He needs freed; Julian Miller needs freed. That won't happen if Jorge Wright doesn't have a very solid – it needs not be spectacular – game.

  • If Wright and the odd stack front can hold down their responsibilities, that will allow Jeff Casteel to bring pressure from various positions and angles. That could rattle quarterback Jarrett Lee, who has solid experience but hasn't often seen the 3-3-5. It reasons that Casteel won't hold much in the arsenal back in terms of blitz packages or defensive movement or approach. West Virginia had excellent success at LSU last season, but that was with an exceptional, NFL player at nose and against arguably a lesser offense. This still isn't an LSU unit that should roll up 30-plus points easily, but it can use its offensive line size and depth to wear down West Virginia.

    Check the Mountaineer line performance at about the late third to early fourth quarter. Is it giving ground or getting pushed back? This is usually about the time LSU begins to assert itself, use clock and finish off victories.

    WVU D vs. LSU O
      WVU LSU
    Scoring 18.7 ppg 36 ppg
    Rushing 116 ypg 166 ypg
    Passing 200 ypg 178.7 ypg
    The backs are big, the line has obvious weight and numbers advantages and, as Steve Dunlap used to note, that tends to give defenses a headache after awhile. WVU's offense can help in portions of this by avoiding turnovers, getting first downs and scoring, but most of this will be on the Mountaineer defense itself.

  • Also, check the corners and see if they are playing back, trying not to get beat by the Tiger receivers, or if Casteel and David Lockwood feel confident enough in them to allow closer play. On short yardage situations, see if LSU head coach Les Miles goes with the obvious run, trying to power his way over the Mountaineers, and how exactly WVU manages that. This is a pretty base offense that likes to control the clock, run power sets and use better players to win. There really aren't many reasons to take chances. But that brings us to the final point here on the Mad Hatter: Fakes, throwbacks, misdirections, reverses…anything could come at any time. West Virginia must play perhaps its most disciplined game in one of its biggest.

  • On to special teams. This is an important match-up for the Mountaineers, and one they need to at least stalemate in the return and coverage game and likely win on field goals. Tyler Bitancurt needs to be extremely solid this game, elevating accurate kicks quickly while the line doesn't allow penetration. The Mountaineers showed significant improvement over the last two weeks, but the push LSU is expected to get should be the most challenging of the season. Focus on the center of the line, or any areas in which the Tigers are overloading. Is West Virginia holding up or getting bullied?
      WVU LSU
    Net Punt 26.5 yds 39.3 yds
    Punt Ret 18 yds 4.9 yds
    KO Ret 38.2 yds 17.9 yds
    Can it match strength-on-strength in the inside? Also watch the in-space battles between athletes on both teams. Is LSU, which averages almost 40 yards per punt, able to create and exploit open areas with potentially superior speed and fast-twitch players, or do the Mountaineers hold their own – or more – on those type of battles? And keep an eye on the punting game. Is the ball placed where the coverage seems to be converging, or is it away from the desired area, allowing more open areas for LSU?

    West Virginia lost last year largely because of turnovers and poor offensive line play, but the punt return by Patrick Peterson was a backbreaker. The Mountaineers cannot allow a special teams score, and they need to convert any field goals inside 40 yards. The flipside of that is the longer the field goal, the more difficult and the better field position given up on any miss. If West Virginia gets itself in multiple situations where the decision comes to fourth and short or around a 40-yard field goal, we'll get a glimpse of how much Holgorsen trusts Bitancurt, and his defense. And if the game is tight late…beware the fake.

    Other than that, enjoy it. Be respectful and be loud. It's not mutually exclusive. Embrace this team, this opportunity and this time. These games don't come often. I recall being at Miami in 1993, and still having incredible memories of the day as a 12-year-old. Perhaps this one can leave some more for many of you.

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