Musings, Matchups and More: WVU - Iowa State

Again, it's a question of motivation and effort for WVU as it closes out the regular season on the windswept steppes of Iowa.

MATCH-UPS, MUSINGS AND MORE

It's disheartening to have to analyze West Virginia's motivation in season-ending games, but that has been one of the major storylines as the Mountaineers have, if not folded, at least withered during recent Novembers. While WVU has played better this year overall, the zero-effort first half against Texas again brings this worry to the fore.

A year ago, following the Kansas-Iowa State collapse, defensive lineman Kyle Rose swore that the team would not follow such a path again. An earnest, dedicated player who doesn't shrink from tough questions, Rose guaranteed that as a team leader, he would do all he could to prevent such a reoccurrence. Except for the Texas debacle, he's been on target, as it was mental and physical mistakes, not lack of effort, that doomed WVU in its losses to TCU and Kansas State.

"That's not going to happen," he reiterated after the K-State contest, when asked if the Mountaineers would lay an effort egg similar to the one produced in 2013.

I could listen to Rose all day -- admittedly, he's a favorite because he plays the game with intensity and emotion, and gets everything he can out of his ability. Will he, and other team leaders, be able to coax similar feelings from the entire team? That's the one key, above all others, in this game. If West Virginia plays hard, it will win, barring a minus six turnover differential or some other outlandish happenstance.

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Although he was banged up in the Texas Tech game, Iowa State tight end E.J. Bibbs is probable for this contest -- making him a major point of focus for the Mountaineer defense.

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West Virginia's coverage on the tight end has been a sore spot for Mountaineer fans, who have seen stars like Jace Amaro, along with some lesser lights, hurt WVU's pass coverage over the past few years. Some of this can be attributed to the pass coverage abilities of the Mountaineers' linebackers, who simply weren't built to cover receivers 20 yards downfield. Credit must also be given to the opponents themselves, both in terms of player talent and offensive scheme, which sometimes caught WVU in a bad call against a certain formation. That happens at times in every game, but once a reputation is built (e.g., WVU can't cover the tight end), then every instance tends to stick in memory.

WVU might not be able to shut down Bibbs, but what it must do is be sound in both pass coverage execution and tackling. He's likely going to get a few grabs (he has 45 this year, including eight for scores) and is the top weapon of QB Sam Richardson. Watch for WVU to provide help against Bibbs with its spur or bandit, and to be especially conscious of Cyclone attempts to slip him deep down the hashmarks while trying to draw the bulk of pass coverage out wide with multiple receivers opposite Bibbs, or with combination routes that work both the deep and short sideline.

West Virginia's ability to stuff the run in the red zone, and especially inside the five-yard line, will likely have ISU looking for Bibbs in those areas. He grabbed a two-point conversion in the decisive third overtime against West Virginia a year ago, and excels at using his big frame to shield defenders from the ball and create a good target for Richardson.


WHERE'D THAT MASCOT COME FROM?

Iowa State's selection of a Cyclone as its athletics moniker makes sense, given the school's location, but personifying that with a live mascot has been tougher than protecting a trailer from a tornado.

Iowa State, like many schools, owes its team nickname to a sportswriter. In this case, it was a Chicago Tribune scribe who noted that Northwestern "might as well have tried to play football with a cyclone" in an 1895 defeat. The name stuck, but coming up with a costume proved problematic. In 1954, a contest was held to pick a suitable representative, and a cardinal -- one of the most ordinary of birds -- was chosen. It's coloring was a natural match, and the name selected -- Cy -- also made for a tie-in, but in reality there's just not much to relate between a bird and a weather event. Cy has gone through several costume iterations over the years, and now pretty much resembles the University of Louisville's mascot. (No fewer than seven states claim the cardinal as their official bird, by the way.)

Given 1950s manufacturing capabilities, it's understandable that a cyclone would be tough to represent. However, we're in a totally different technological era -- couldn't something be devised to show the 'Clones in true character? A quick search of the Web shows a number of very inventive homemade costumes, as well as a few commercially available outfits. There are even some that spin to give a realistic cyclone feel. Surely someone in the school's design or engineering departments could come up with a suit that's really representative.


THINGS TO WATCH

Whether it's Clint Trickett or Skyler Howard at quarterback, West Virginia must do a better job of protection. Cyclone defensive end Cory Morrissey, with six sackes, is a veteran pass rusher who can create pressure and win one-on-one battles, so that will put the spotlight on WVU's offensive tackles, who have had up and down seasons. Howard might be a bit better suited in avoiding pressure, but early in the season Trickett showed the ability to evade the rush and pick up yardage. That facet of his game has dwindled as the year has progressed, but whether it's due to injury or the defenses he has faced is open for debate.

It's a simple thing to watch, but one that will be important. Do WVU's QBs have to reset their feet and avoid rushers, or are they able to get the snap, make a read and deliver in rhythm? West Virginia's offense is designed to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands as quickly as possible, and when defenses can force them to reload or reset, it's often a win. Keep track of the "clean" throws versus those where the QB has to move -- West Virginia must keep the latter number low in order to have a productive passing day.

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"Getting behind the sticks" is a trendy way of referring to losing yardage and putting an offense in a difficult situation, but the idea behind it has been an important one to WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen throughout his coaching career. Early in his time at WVU, he referred often to "negative plays", noting that they were the number one killers of his offensive system.

With that in mind, this is certainly a week to keep track of setbacks. Penalties, sacks, lost yardage plays -- keep that tally running, and see how many times West Virginia can overcome them. It wouldn't be a surprise to see a majority of drives that end in punts or turnovers (the ultimate negative play) be influenced by lost yardage somewhere along the line.

For reference, WVU has lost 294 yards on rushing attempts this year, another 205 on sacks and 662 via penalty. Add in the hideous 26 turnovers (only four Division I teams have more), and the negatives have simply been too much to overcome.

By way of comparison, Iowa State has totaled only 826 yards of negative plays this year. Granted, the Cyclones have run some 200 fewer plays than WVU, but dividing the total losses by the total number of plays shows that WVU averages -1.23 yards of losses per snap, while ISU falls back at a rate of just 1.10. When combined with the turnover stat, it continues to amaze that West Virginia has found a way to win six game this year.


SOMETHING YOU NEED TO KNOW

Iowa State's passing game took a big hit in the opener when Quenton Bundrage suffered a knee injury, but his place has been at least adequately filled by freshman Allen Lazard, who has 41 catches for 547 yards. Those aren't massive numbers, but he has been consistent, catching at least three passes in seven of ISU's ten games.

While the Cyclone passing game hasn't lit up the skies, it has been at least respectable, producing 19 scores against seven turnovers. If West Virginia is still thin at corner (both Daryl Worley and Terrell Chestnut were knocked out of the Kansas State game), ISU does have the weapons to move the ball against the WVU secondary. Bibbs, along with fellow wideout D'Vario Montgomery, form the core of a receiving and running back group that shows seven different players with at least 16 receptions.


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