Following an outstanding 9-1 1969 regular season, WVU head coach Jim Carlen dispatched assistant Bobby Bowden to learn the wishbone offense and install in prior to the Peach Bowl. As legend holds, Bowden and the staff achieved what seems impossible today, learning a different system from scratch, then installing it in just three weeks. The change produced 206 rushing yards for Mountaineer Eddie Williams, and 356 overall, as WVU sloshed to a 14-3 win over South Carolina.
Given that history, there's often speculation as to why it couldn't be repeated, and that thought sprang to the forefront again recently when newly-elevated defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said fans would see some immediate differences in West Virginia's defensive strategies and tactics in the Pinstripe Bowl. How many changes could there be, and what could be limiting factors in implementing changes?
Before we examine that, there are a few details regarding the 1969 change that should be known, but aren't often enumerated. First, West Virginia often ran option plays with just two backs in the backfield, so the option itself wasn't foreign to the team. Second, WVU didn't change any of its blocking schemes, so there wasn't much new to teach to the line. The biggest difference was in the simple addition of a third back and the positioning of the players in the backfield. Finally, practice limits didn't exist at the time, so despite the short timeframe the Mountaineers had plenty of on-field chances to master the timing of the changes.
Granted, that didn't make the change an easy one. Backs had to change their alignments and steps, and the quarterback had to get used to different steps and to the paths of the backs out of the new alignment. The moves caught South Carolina completely off guard, and only the weather kept WVU from rolling up a bigger margin of victory.
Fast forward to December, 2012, and something similar might be brewing. WVU isn't going to go to an Oklahoma 5-2 defense or back to the 3-3 stack, but some changes in techniques and philosophy might be apparent when the Mountaineers square off against the Orange. How many of those changes could be mastered in the dozen or so practices since the end of the season? That's going to be a delicate balance, and one that's limited by several factors.
First, practice times are limited, so WVU didn't conduct daily four hour sessions in its workouts since the end of the season. It has only two full practices in New York, and those are likely going to be spent honing the final game plan. There's no time for more experimentation, so what has been done and installed to date is likely what fans are going to see.
Second, West Virginia's defense did improve marginally in its last couple of games. Granted, that still left a long way to go to respectability, but there's a danger in throwing away that improvement and introducing confusion back into the mix – a factor that was clearly evident in some phases of WVU's play this year.
Finally, there aren't any new players to plug into the mix, so there aren't any new skills to take advantage off. No speedy linebackers, dominating pass rushers or sticky cover cornerbacks have been added to the roster, so changes are going to have to come within the existing framework of both players and system.
With those caveats, what might Mountaineer fans see next Saturday? First, there could be a change in coverage tactics. WVU played very little press coverage this year, and while that was probably a good decision given the talent available, it might not be bad to see some tight coverages off the line mixed in on occasion. WVU got picked apart in the passing game all season, so going the pressure route could be an option.
Another item to watch for is more varied looks and fronts. WVU settled into a 3-4 look for most of the year, and in its search for a pass rush often played a speed player (Josh Francis) at the buck position. WVU could go with another player there in certain situations, and show some additional four-man fronts to try to get pressure on Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib.
Intermediate pass coverage is another place to watch for some tactical changes. It's no secret that the Orange killed WVU with tight end routes last year, and they had similar weapons this season in the form of Beckett Wales, who had 32 receptions for 350 yards, and David Stevens, who added ten catches for 107. West Virginia's defense, built to handle spread offenses without tight ends, will almost surely have to see some adjustments to account for tight ends in the passing attack.
Of course, Patterson and the coaches aren't talking, because they are hoping that their changes, limited though they might be, will have the same effect on the Orange as that other famous changeup in Mountaineer history did against the Gamecocks nearly a half-century ago.