What To Expect, What Not To Expect

After a long offseason's wait, West Virginia put on a strong showing in the season-opener against Marshall. But then the waiting started again, as the Mountaineers had a weekend off before this week's neutral-site clash against FCS foe James Madison.

Look for these five themes -- three things you can expect, two you shouldn't -- to emerge when WVU kicks things off against the Dukes at FedEx Field on Saturday.

1) Expect a better tackling performance.

The consistent refrain from coaches and players has been that West Virginia's defense actually did a reasonably solid job of knowing and executing its assignments in the season-opener against Marshall.

There were two problems that kept the Mountaineers from keeping the scoring and yardage totals down, though, and they go hand-in-hand. Players struggled to get Thundering Herd players to the ground, which led to a success rate of nearly 50 percent on third downs for Marshall.

Yes, WVU worked on tackling fundamentals in the preseason just like every other team did, but live game action is just a different animal. Linebacker Doug Rigg noted this week that the Marshall game was the first time defenders had actually tackled a quarterback since the Orange Bowl, as coaches wisely don't allow contact on signal-callers during practices.

Given a game's worth of film to study -- and plenty of time to digest what it shows and apply those lessons to the practice field once more -- one would think the defenders should see an uptick in their tackling performance this week.

2) Expect a few depth chart moves on defense.

Outside linebackers coach Steve Dunlap said last week that the Marshall game film gave the team's new defensive coaches a better understanding of what positions in WVU's new 3-4 defense were particularly suited to some players. Thus, a few Mountaineers, he said, will shift positions in the games to come.

Don't expect wholesale changes or to see any particularly dramatic position swaps. Dunlap called the moves "minor." But he wouldn't give away exactly what they might be.

"I can't go telling you everything, now can I?" he said.

3) Expect (slightly) more polished special teams units.

Special teams were a mixed bag in the opener, with several units faring quite well. Others obviously struggled, as Tyler Bitancurt missed a point-after try and a third-quarter punt from the foot of Corey Smith was blocked by Marshall's C.J. Crawford, setting up a short field the Herd turned into a touchdown.

Dana Holgorsen noted that with a new long snapper, freshman John DePalma, both Bitancurt and Smith have had to adjust. The trust that is necessary between kicker and snapper is something that comes with time. Former WVU long snapper Cody Nutter was rock-solid for years and obviously had that rapport with Bitancurt and Smith.

But regardless of the snapping situation, the punt block was a failure for the protection unit as well. If MU's Crawford hadn't blocked the punt, at least two of his teammates weren't far behind to take care of business. One would imagine that facet of play has received considerable attention in the past two weeks.

4) Don't expect it to be over in the first quarter.

James Madison plays a style of offense predicated on ball control. And given WVU's issues with getting off the field on third downs in the season-opener, the Dukes could go on a long drive or two and chew time off the clock early to keep things interesting for awhile.

That's not to say West Virginia shouldn't eventually win in a rout. According to Mountaineer Sports Network sideline reporter/statistical guru Jed Drenning, Holgorsen-led teams have played seven games against FCS foes. In those seven games, Holgorsen's team has scored at least 55 points per outing, and the coach's smallest margin of victory has been 39 points.

But patience may be a virtue for those watching, as JMU's style of play could keep the score close for at least the early stages.

5) Don't expect timing to be an issue for the offense.

If Holgorsen seems to have one worry for his offense, it consistently has to do with quarterbacks and receivers losing the sense of timing they develop over the course of countless reps in practice. Holgorsen preaches finding a routine and sticking with it, which is why he seems to detest off weeks so much -- they mess around with the normal schedule.

Still, with this crop of offensive skill players, those worries seem to be unfounded. After all, if West Virginia got out of routine at all last season, it would have been in the month between the regular season finale and the Orange Bowl. We all know what happened there.

And given eight months of time away from the games themselves, the Mountaineers could have been excused for being a bit rusty in the season-opener. They answered that call as well, looking as sharp as ever in posting 69 points against Marshall.


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