Musings, Matchups and More

Quarterbacks are in the spotlight on every media outlet going into this game, but we go far deeper in pursuit of more angles and match-ups that will really determine the WVU - Alabama season opener.

MATCH-UPS, MUSINGS AND MORE

That's not to discount the impact that QBs have on the game. But there are other, just as intriguing, items to look at as the teams square off for the first time in their long football histories.

One of those comes on the edge of the trenches, where Alabama true freshman Cam Robinson (6-6, 320 lbs.) will face West Virginia's Shaq Riddick (6-6, 240 lbs.). It's a classic example of old school brute size and strength against new age speed and agility, and one that carries an interesting side plot as well.

Robinson, for his part, is "just another" Crimson Tide recruit with a great pedigree. Most ot the time, though, Alabama recruits must wait their turn to get on the field. That's true down the rest of the offensive line, where two seniors, a junor and a sophomore are expected to man the other four line positions. Robinson, thogh, will be making his first ever appearance in a starting role, with all the attendant pressure that brings.

WVU will counter with Riddick, who is a senior in name only. Well, that's probably not fair, because he has excelled both on the field and in the classroom in graduating from Gardner Webb, but he also has no experience facing high level Division I teams. He has shown outstanding quickness in drills, displaying the ability to bend the edge and speed into the pocket to harass throwers, and his height also allows him to get hands up to bat down a few passes and distract the visual field of the quarterback. But can he avoid being gobbled up by an opponent tht outweighs him by 90-some pounds? Or will he be able to speed by, much as Mountaineer rushers did to Oklahoma's Phil Loadholt in the Fiesta Bowl?

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This game will feature two of the best running back corps in the nation. In fact, it could wind up being one of the best head-to-head confrontations of the year. That's "head-to-head" in a strained sense, however, because each will be facing an opposing defense, not each other.

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I point that out because it's not the relative talents of Alabama's T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake against WVU's Dreamius Smith, Wendell Smallwood, Rushel Shell, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie. It's what they can do against the opposing defensive fronts and run supporting safeties, and in that area the Crimson Tide has to be considered as having the advantage, at least going in. Most reports from Tuscaloosa indicate that Nick Saban's stoppers are as deep as ever, despite the loss of several stalwarts of a year ago. Consider that on Alabama's depth chart, six of the front seven positions list an "OR" -- indicating multiple players that are considered as equals heading into the contest. Granted, some of that may be coaching motivation, and some may be a lame attempt to confuse WVU, but more than likely is indicates a defense that can truly come at the Mountaineers in waves. Senior LB Trey DePriest is suspended? Sub in sophomore Reuben Foster. Defensive end Jonathan Allen needs a rest? Dalvin Tomlinson, checking in at 20 pounds heavier, enters the fray.

This doesn't mean that the Mountaineers have no chance. WVU looks better up front overall, and even with some positional shifting during the last days of camp, should be able to rotate five or six defensive linemen during the game (Kyle Rose, Dontrill Hyman, Eric Kinsey, Christian Brown, Noble Nwachukwu and Riddick). But will that be enough to stand up to a pounding rushing game, where eight of the ten 'Bama two-deepers weight 315 pounds or more? In its running game, the Crimson Tide reminds of old Big East foe Boston College, who smashed it inside and tried to wear down its foes. Conventional wisdom holds that Alabama will do the same in light of its quarterback situation.

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Finally, West Virginia has to win the special teams battle. Decisively. It has a good advantage with both its kicker and punter, but appears on the short end of the return game. Someone (Daryl Worley? Rushel Shell? Mario Alford?) has to pop a big return. Conversely, the Mountaineers must bottle up Christion Jones, an all-purpose threat who gives Alabama a big play threaton both punt and kickoff returns. Mountaineer special teams coach Joe DeForest noted that punter Nick O'Toole has worked on placement and directional punting heavily in the offseason, and that's an unnoticed aspect of the game that could be a big factor when WVU has to boot it away. A series of 39-yard fair catches might not be the worst outcome in the punt game. IT would also be nice to see a few touchbacks when the Mountaineers kick off, but unless there's been a dramatic upgrade it's likely Jones will get chances to run it out. Kickoff coverage has to be crisp, with excellent angles taken by every defender on the field as they cover their lanes.


WHERE'D THAT MASCOT COME FROM?

Each week we'll examine the traditions, origins or interesting sidelights of the opposing team's mascot. Or, if nothing great presents itself, we'll again extol the virtues of the best representative in the land, our own West Virginia Mountaineer.

The script "A" logo of Alabama is well-recognized and understandable, but less so is the elephant logo that is also employed by the school. According to the University's official athletic site, that image stems from a 1930 article by Atlanta Journal writer Everett Strupper. After his first viewing of the 'Bama varsity, he refered to them as "Red Elephants". That name stuck, sort of, but didn't morph into "Al the Elephant" -- the costumed mascot that now cavorts along the sidelines -- until the 1979 Sugar Bowl.

In between, there was a live elephant employed for Homecoming parades in the 1940s, but the cost of keeping a live elephant proved prohibitive, and ceased in favor of occasional rentals or special game celebrations. There were also some previous, unofficial donnings of an elephant head and homegrown costumes along the sidelines inthe 1960s, but the official "Big Al" is a relatively new creation.


ITEMS TO WATCH

Last year, WVU running back Dreamius Smith danced a bit to much in the backfield at times. That minimized his strength and straightline speed, and made him less effective. Smith has to get squared up and hit up into the hole or gap hard, otherwise he's much less valuable than he can be. Watch him early, especially against a Tide defense that figures to bring the pressure early. If he's not honking it up in there, someone else is going to get a chance quickly.

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While most expect Alabama to hug the ground, that doesn't mean WVU can ignore its pass rush. In fact, the blitz may be even more important in this game, as a unsteady Tide QB in the passing game could result in a lopsided offense and give the Mountaineers the chance to make their foes one-dimensional. Of course, that's a lot of "ifs", but the point of this is to keep on eye on West Virginia's pressure, if it is able to generate it.

Before we move on to WVU's rush, let's puncture the myth of Alabama as a run dominated team. According to the school, the Crimson Tide has fielded one of the most balanced offenses in the nation over the past four-plus years. In 2012, they gained 3,185 yards rushing and 3,052 yards passing, a difference of only 133 yards. Since the 2009 season, Alabama has passed for 15,105 while rushing for 14,035, a difference of only 1,070 yards (or 15.97 yards per game difference in 67 games). The 2013 Crimson Tide threw for 3,230 yards while rushing for 2,673, a difference of 577 yards.

For the past three or four seasons, WVU has tried to get pressure with a variety of blitzes and rushes from its linebackers and safety\backer hybrids. Call them spurs, bandits, stars or bucks, the focus has been to send rushers from different positions and different angles to get free paths to the quarterback. Unfortunately, those have been about as successful as the Ottomans' attempt to take Malta in the 1500s. WVU's sack and pressures totals have dropped precipitously over that span, and if it is to have any hope at all of a razing in Atlanta, it must do better. THus, the big items to keep an eye on in this game:

  • Where is WVU pressure coming from? The wider spurs or bandits? Walking backers up to the line, or overloading gaps or one side of the protection?
  • Is WVU running free but coming up short in getting to the QB before he releases the ball? That was a particular problem in Jeff Casteel's last year in Morgantown -- well-designed and well-executed plays fell short because defenders were just a step slow in getting home.

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    I'm also interested to see how many WVU players actually participate in plays from scrimmage in the game. This brings the increased depth angle into play, but it's also something to set up for the remainder of the season. Coaches will get the chance to grade all the participating players in this contest, and that could go a long way in determining who earns more P.T., and who reverts to a backup role, in the coming weeks. Head coach Dana Holgorsen said he would take close to 80 players to Atlanta, wich is probably the most he has taken on the road other than to bowl games at WVU. For a coach that likes to keep his sidelines uncluttered, that's significant.


    ONE LAST THING YOU NEED TO KNOW

    Experience has been a topic of discussion around the Mountaineer camp all fall, but which player has the most? Somewhat surprisingly, it's cornerback Travis Bell, who has bounced around the secondary, up and down the depth chart, and on and off suspension over a very uneven WVU career. Now, in his final go-round, he has a chance to rewrite some of that story and solidify a cornerback spot that was shaken when Ishmael Banks was hit with a three-game suspension for academic issues. While WVU isn't bare at the spot (Terrell Chestnut is also expected to play), Bell's 39 games on the field, along with ten starting assignments, could be important in keeping Mountaineer nerves settled in the early going. Not much would be nicer for Bell than to repay the faith shown by Dana Holgorsen in keeping him on the team after a pair of arrests and charges in 2013.


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