A Look Inside ... Game Eight

West Virginia, still looking for its first complete game of the season, plays a second straight road contest for the first time in the Dana Holgorsen era.

BlueGoldNews.com Game Scorecard
Sat 10/29/11 3:30 PM

Piscataway, NJ

High Point Solutions Stadium
Record: 5-2
BCS: 25
Last Game
Syracuse L 23-49
Sirius/XM: 92/194
Web: BlueGoldNews.com
Record: 5-2
Last Game
Louisville L 14-16
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Press Release
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2011 Schedule

Series: WVU 32-4-2
First Meeting: 1921
Last Meeting: 2011
Press Release
Season Stats
2011 Schedule

There's no question the Mountaineers need a win at Rutgers, and it would seem that the Knights have a solid set-up for beating WVU for the first time in 17 tries. It remains to be seen if the home team has the personnel and can execute to the exact degree Syracuse did in an upset last week. Let's take a look inside the match-up and see both what West Virginia needs to do better (virtually everything) and what RU is likely to attempt this weekend.

  • Holgorsen noted his offense didn't do much well during the Syracuse debacle. Turnovers, missed line assignments, poor blitz pickup and mediocre recognition of the Orange's defensive disguise combined for the Mountaineers' worst total offensive game this season. There's no question Rutgers will blitz and try to pressure Geno Smith before he can comfortably set up and find wideouts. Some quick deliveries are surely in the making. But they key is up front. WVU's line played well in a straight physical match against LSU. It didn't do as well in a thinking man's game in the Carrier Dome. Check the blitz schemes and where they come from early. Is West Virginia able to effectively communicate and shift to pick up numbers? Are there totally missed assignments, leaving Smith exposed and vulnerable? Count the players rushed. Are the Mountaineers up against a numbers mismatch?

    Holgorsen's offense is primed for handling zone blitzing, and as the coach noted, actually wants teams to blitz. That gives the receivers more area in which to work and find open ground in which to settle. West Virginia, indeed, should be expected to play well against such assaults. But it starts with line play. It's all recognition, communication and execution. At least a couple of those areas have to be better. From there it goes to the next level …

  • Quarterbacking. Syracuse was Smith's worst game since … Syracuse last season. The junior forced a few bad throws. One he simply tossed to the middle of the field where it was easily intercepted. On another he tried a crossing route in the end zone, threading a ball to a three-on-one disadvantage. Another interception, this right on the goal line. Smith is aware of the transgressions, and he is seasoned enough not to make those mistakes. He was hit, arguably a bit late, multiple times by the Orange, and did seem to rattle some in terms of decisions. He must keep composure, and take perhaps a less attractive higher percentage option instead of throwing the fun, exciting, possibly quite dangerous ball he desires. He could also be helped some by playcalling, as Holgorsen went far too often to the fade route in the last game.
    WVU O vs. RU D
      WVU Rutgers
    Scoring 38.3 ppg 16 ppg
    Rushing 115.4 ypg 122.1 ypg
    Passing 374.4 ypg 184.1 ypg
    Smith is exactly the type of player and mentality to bounce back, and he will need to. If the line picks up the pressure adequately, it reads here Smith will be fine and play well and under control/within the offense. If it doesn't, another series of forced throws might be in the making. Geno has experience. He doesn't always have extreme savvy to match that high level of skill. Rutgers could test this.

  • Receivers. West Virginia could use a bit more fight in going for the ball. The Mountaineers got knocked off some routes, didn't battle especially well in midair save a couple scoring grabs (which were excellent), and the blocking on the outside for screens left a bit to be desired. This is a very solid pass defense, and one that will keep chopping wood versus WVU. The Knights rank first in the Big East in pass yards allowed (185.5) and are also first in pass efficiency. Part of that is the 15 picks against five touchdowns allowed, and it figures that the Mountaineers must be more opportunistic this game than last. Receivers – and the quarterback – must finish better in the red zone. West Virginia has ended just 60 percent of its red zone opportunities with touchdowns, and a team must be at least 80 percent to be considered successful by most statisticians.

  • And the backs. This is an area I thought was pretty solid against Syracuse. WVU ran hard, put its proverbial head down and was able to gain ground and pick up short yardage as needed on numerous occasions. There were no turnovers and a lone, unlost fumble, and the backs generally blocked reasonably. It wasn't pretty, as only 70 total yards were netted when one factored the sacks on Smith. But it was enough to help the passing game and keep Syracuse mostly honest until the game began to slip out of reach. Another similar performance against Rutgers would be adequate. The Knights are much better, stat-wise, than Syracuse, allowing about 120 yards per game.

  • Defensively, it's difficult to know even where to start. There are obvious issues, like slowing the interior run, covering tight ends and shorter passes better and not losing track of receivers out of the backfield. One would think Rutgers will formulate a similar game plan to that of Syracuse: Run the ball if possible, eat clock and throw shorter, crisp, high-percentage passes to do just enough to loosen the linebackers to run again. That worked well with a veteran quarterback. But with Rutgers now using freshman Gary Nova, who will face the WVU odd stack for the first time, it would not seem as though the newcomer could thread as many completions into somewhat tight windows as did Ryan Nassib. It reads here that Nova will make a couple mistakes that will prove costly – if the Mountaineers can bottle the run enough to force a steady diet of passes.

    See if coordinator Jeff Casteel has addition players supporting the run, daring a frosh signalcaller to make the throws necessary to move the ball. Or does he back off, knowing Rutgers ranks dead last in the Big East in rush yards per attempt (WVU is giving up a league-worst 130 rush yards a game)? It won't matter, obviously, if the front six are getting gashed via the power game. But if the line can hold the interior and the linebackers tackle better than last week (and they should), Rutgers could be pressed into a pass-heavy style. RU could also be forced to throw a lot if behind, but that would develop a bit later in the game than would going to the air if the run is bottled well. It's worth watching the nose position and seeing if it's getting pushed off the ball. Also check the linebackers for decent flow and how well they scrape down the line. If the LBs get caught in traffic, West Virginia could again be hurt in trying to slow the run. How many players are around the ball? Several? Or is a lone tackler saving big gains? And is Rutgers, a bad running team, able to run?

  • It should be assumed that the Mountaineers will also cover the pass better than they did versus the Orange. Not being sucked into play action will go a long way. Eye the linebackers and corners on play action. Are they holding their positions? Keeping their heads in the backfield too long? Are they allowing tight ends or receivers to slip into the second level uncovered? The quickness of the response post-fake will give one a good idea of the focus of the defensive players and if they are keying far too much on one aspect.
    WVU D vs. RU O
      WVU Rutgers
    Scoring 25.4 ppg 28 ppg
    Rushing 130.4 ypg 91.7 ypg
    Passing 191 ypg 236.1 ypg
    Does any area seem slow-footed? Is the coverage tight, or is the usual cushion hurting WVU on short throws? And how quickly do the Mountaineers respond to such? Stopping the run is the primary goal, but it can't be so imperative that receivers often leak out for solid gains, as happened at Syracuse. The whole of the odd stack needs tightening this week. If it doesn't happen by week eight, it's a bet it will not this season.

  • Toughness. Several posters have noted that they have never, or at least very rarely, seen a WVU team pushed around sans response. Is this a product of a finesse offensive style that bleeds onto the defense? Were the Mountaineers overly confident? Were they going through the motions? Check the aggression, mean streak and intensity for the road team early. Is it hitting solidly? Is it playing a physical style without crossing the line? Does it appear to be able to match or up the intensity brought by Rutgers? There really should be no more surprises in approach. West Virginia will get every Big East team's best shot, and there is no margin for error now if WVU wants a league title and BCS berth. The Mountaineers, again, must match or exceed early and dictate the physicality – not have it dosed to them early and often like last week.

  • The special teams match-up concerned me last season, but the game was never close enough for it to matter. This year it could, but the conversion differences in the kicking game seem to have lessened. Rutgers placekicker San San Te has been automatic throughout his first three seasons, but has made just 12 of 20 tries this season. WVU's Tyler Bitancurt suffered through a sophomore slump, but has hit 12 of 13 attempts thus far this season. The edge here is probably negligible, though the Mountaineers have to feel more comfortable in this match-up, should it come down to a battle of field goals, than they did in 2010.

    Neither team flashes even good numbers in the return game, so that seems a push with West Virginia having more potential with better athletes. That leaves kick coverage. WVU has been downright poor, especially on tackling and getting into decent position on kickoffs, and there is little reason to think that stops now. Field position could be key, and Mohamed Sanu is dangerous enough for concern.

    Take a look at how West Virginia kicks to the All-Big East performer. The guess is here there will be few traditional kicks. It would appear skying to maximize hang time is appropriate, as would be squibbing a few simply for variation.

      WVU Rutgers
    Net Punt 33.9 yds 34.8 yds
    Punt Ret 12.7 yds 4.8 yds
    KO Ret 23.5 yds 24.3 yds
    Of course, if a team is kicking off six times in a game, that's a solid sign of scoring and offensive performance. Another return for a score, or a couple deep into WVU territory, will hurt an already sagging Mountaineer defense. The special teams coverage and kick locations must be better than it has been at any time this season to give the road team a chance. Kick away from Sanu, outside the hashes, and get some hang time under the kick. Otherwise, it's the tried-but-true idea of tackling and blowing up the first wave of blockers in front of the ball carrier – something West Virginia still isn't very good at doing. This is an issue. Check the few blockers in front of the return player and see if they can give him an initial crack. If that is happening, the Mountaineers are again in trouble.

  • As an aside, cold and dreary conditions are forecast for the 3:30 p.m. EST kick. Highs in the low 40s and lows in the 30s are expected to be accompanied by a 30 percent chance of rain. Winds will not be terribly bad (from NNE at 15 mph), but the stadium at Rutgers tends to allow any wind to swirl through its closed end and double back upon itself coming from the open area. At 15 mph, that could be enough to affect the kicking game and create issues field punts. West Virginia might again be well served to place a second return man in the punt game. And might Holgorsen's already aggressive play calling manifest itself even more in certain short yardage situations at the edge of field goal range?

    Watch the play calls on, say, third and four from the 30 to 35 yard line. If the offensive staff calls for a midrange passes, it would seem they have confidence in Bitancurt despite the conditions. If it's a run, another could come right after on fourth down to keep the chains moving. Being aware of what one wants to do in those situations and already formulating a proper course of action will make those in-game calls easy. It will be interesting to see how Holgorsen plays out situations on the edge of field goal range with messy northeast weather. The guess here is he remains aggressive. But how aggressive is too aggressive? Will a balance be struck?

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