A Look Inside ... Game Ten

What team shows this week for West Virginia? What aspects play well? What, really, does this team bank on when it needs a play?

BlueGoldNews.com Game Scorecard
Sat 11/12/11 12:00 PM

Cincinnati, OH

Paul Brown Stadium
Record: 6-3
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Record: 7-1
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Pitt W 26-23
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Series: WVU 15-3-1
First Meeting: 1921
Last Meeting: 2010
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Frankly, I'm not sure. A porous defense, a lackadaisical offense, questionable special teams. And the most difficult road test of the season versus Cincinnati this weekend.

It reads like a bad combo. And there's not a lot of positives to bank on for these Mountaineers, who have shown flashes of both horrendous and quite solid play in all three phases. Which makes this arguably the most unpredictable team in recent memory in terms of what to watch, of what awaits each game. Do we eye the special teams coverage units, as was the case early, or do we now have to fret about blocked kicks, ones returned for scores? Do the issues lie along the defensive front? The secondary? Will it be gaping run holes, or simply getting plowed over by more physical players? Tackling? Open wideouts? Lackluster offensive line play? Forced throws? Fumbles? Honestly, anyone's guess could be easily defended or dismissed with equal alacrity.

  • I'll, again, start with the offense. One would think West Virginia would move the ball well versus Cincy. The Mountaineers have in every game save Syracuse for stretches, and the UC defense is nowhere near as good as Louisville. But it doesn't seem to matter the foe, match-up, or location. WVU flounders several chances each game, often giving foes short fields and excellent opportunities. It appears as though the road team can forget about moving the ball on the ground here. Cincinnati's rush defense ranks second in the country in yards allowed, and though it doesn't often see the style of run-based attack out of the shotgun that the Mountaineers use, it might not matter.

    Cincinnati tackles well, gets to the ball and showcases solid line play. That's not to note that WVU can't run. Indeed, with the field as spread as it will be and playmakers like Tavon Austin and Shawne Alston, Dana Holgorsen has some weapons. The problem will be up front execution for holes, and allowing Alston and others a decent number of carries. Much of that depends upon the flow of the game, and often against Louisville (and others) the flow orchestration by the Mountaineer staff was puzzling.

    Choosing not to go for it on fourth and short early, taking quick shots for throws at the end of the third quarter on a key third down. It seems there is a learning curve going on, or at least very little attempt at reasoning for going with one decision over another, other than a gut instinct. So, with that, who knows what the gut instinct will be this week? Is it to run on third and two, or throw? Is it to establish some sort of identity with what works, even if it's the run? It's hard to tell how well West Virginia could run, when there's little indication of how it plans to approach any game.

  • That's the primary question, that unknown approach, and one that leads to a corollary point: If there is no bread-and-butter, nothing one can rely on…when a key situation arises, what does the staff do? The old adage is to think players, not plays, and West Virginia often does that, hitting its quite good receivers for first downs and putting the ball in Geno Smith's hands. But it also seems to get away from the run even when it's working, it tosses fade routes like candy at a parade, just helter skelter, and all that makes it very tough to tell in any game what will transpire. That's a fine thing at times. WVU is racking up impressive point totals.
    WVU O vs. UC D
      WVU UC
    Scoring 38.2 ppg 19.5 ppg
    Rushing 126.8 ypg 86.1 ypg
    Passing 361 ypg 277.1 ypg
    But there comes multiple times in a game – maybe a handful – when a team must execute and be able to rely on some facet of its game, and it reads here West Virginia would be hard-pressed to tell you what that would be.

    If I were to give an example, say, third and two, and ask one to guess what the play call would be, what the old Gold and Blue can hang a proverbial hat on … there really would not be any legit answer. And that's fine for fooling a defense, staying unpredictable to foes and using all options and weapons available. The problem for West Virginia is that unpredictability in play calling results from an unpredictability in what, exactly, WVU is able to do to get a first down.

    Will the line block? Will the backs fumble? Will the receivers be well-covered, forcing an ad lib that's 50-50 at best? Too many questions of the sort this late in the year. And that's why, when asked to game insights as to how teams match-up, only the most general terms can be thought as reasonable with this group. West Virginia might indeed run well versus UC. Will it pound the ball, though? Not likely. Maybe a reverse or counter off a screen fake? Maybe. The athletes for such are there. WVU should pass well against UC. Will it be long passes? Catch-and-runs? A slip screen that goes the distance? How consistent will the attack run? Who knows. Could be a 28 point first quarter or a 28 point fourth. There might be a pick and two fumbles in the second quarter, or a clean game all around. There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. I'm not even sure the coaching staff has a real good idea of what could happen of now.

  • Defensively, it's much the same. Seems like the unit makes several nice stops during a stretch of play, makes a solid turnover that even seals or turns games around. It also seems like it can't get off the field in key situations, even after forcing third and mediums, doesn't tackle well at times, stops the straight ahead run, then gets gashed, and lets quarterbacks run around behind the line for far too long. Zach Collaros is a decent scrambler, and he will buy time. It's tough to think West Virginia won't give up major yardage gains in the air, some on busted plays. Even if all players have discipline and stay home on any misdirection or play action, Collaros will probably have far too long to throw. WVU rarely gets home on sacks, and it doesn't have the backfield talent to cover for five to six seconds. Check the busted play, and see how many of Cincinnati's gains are off Collaros having a ton of time, scrambling around and finding a wideout, or open patch of turf, for good yardage. Keep that to a minimum, and the Mountaineers will be in good position.

  • This match-up, and West Virginia's ability to get even a stalemate out of it, could come down to the gunslinger mentality of who makes the play, and who gives up a bad one. As stated above, WVU has some playmakers. Not as many in the past, but enough to get a few turnovers, slow teams solidly for at least portions of the game and hang in, especially with the Mountaineer offense routinely hitting the mid-30s in points. Collaros will throw into coverage. He will force passes. He will sling it on the run, and take what he thinks is there, even if it might not be exactly the ideal play UC head coach Butch Jones would like.

    That gives West Virginia the opening it needs.

    WVU D vs. UC O
      WVU UC
    Scoring 27.4 ppg 39.1 ppg
    Rushing 129.9 ypg 194 ypg
    Passing 202 ypg 231.4 ypg
    WVU must step in front of a few errant passes. Its linebackers need to pick off batted balls. The goal: slow the run, keep Collaros in the pocket and not improvising, and when he does break and try to force a play, capitalize. There should be a handful of chances. The Mountaineers must grab them here. This defense had a chance to get off the field multiple times on Louisville's last scoring drive that capped the game. It instead gave up an elongated drive for score – the worst thing it could have done. Those chances, those third and twos, the quarterback-in-the-grasp-gets-away, the should-have-been interceptions, must indeed be.

  • It keeps coming up, and we will tie to two together this week: Desire and tackling. There's not much more to write. West Virginia must show more of both. Wrap tackle, get players on the ground, get through and around blocks and show some intensity and hustle. Finish plays. This is major collegiate football. Tackle. Play hard on every snap. Show the fan base, the coaching staff – yourselves, even – that the Mountaineers haven't packed it in for 2011.

  • On to special teams. Slight edge here to the Bearcats. UC has better stats across the board save the return game, and West Virginia very seldom even returns a punt. They usually are fair caught or not even fielded. Both placekickers are 12 of 15 this season, but the real advantage will be on exchange of possession, where Cincinnati punter Pat O'Donnell should shine (45.3 average per punt). WVU is struggling here, with punts averaging about 20 yards last game courtesy of two going 12 yards or less.
      WVU UC
    Net Punt 33.8 yds 40.1 yds
    Punt Ret 12.7 yds 6.5 yds
    KO Ret 24.4 yds 20.6 yds
    The Mountaineers have gone away from the two-man punt return game of late. It's tough to tell if that will continue, but it hasn't mattered, as West Virginia has not broken a big punt play in several games.

    Don't expect a lot of trickery in this game. Both head coaches know their respective offenses can move the ball, so there's little reason to try a trick play on special teams when utilizing the offense is more likely to be successful. This looks like a play ‘em straight affair, and the team will the fewest miscues will have a solid shot if the defenses can do much of anything.

  • One intangible to note is the playing of the game at Paul Brown Stadium as opposed to Nippert, the on-campus UC facility that's a fair venue, but also quite intimate. This was expected to give West Virginia a solid edge, and it still should. But with the Mountaineers not playing well and starting to see any hope of a decent season slip away and UC on a roll offensively, the advantage here might be short-lived. The Bearcats should have too much confidence after seeing WVU against Syracuse and Louisville to fret much about being down a score or two. The time – if there ever was truly one – where West Virginia intimidated foes or amounted to the New York Yankees coming to town is over. The Flying WV on the road jersey doesn't inspire much fear, but still likely makes teams get up a bit more for the game. That's a double negative for the Mountaineers. If West Virginia loses this one, it will have three losses in four games for the first time since losing three in a row (bowl included) to end the 2004 season.

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