MATCH-UPS, MUSINGS AND MORE
With offensive fireworks anticipated, the team that can slow its opponent, however slightly, could hold an edge. One such location where the Aggies hope to capitalize is at defensive end, where true freshman Myles Garrett has recorded 11 sacks, nine hurries and a pass breakup in 11 games. His presence has helped revitalize a flagging A&M pressure game, which totaled 33 sacks for 157 yards in losses this year.
With rhythm one of the keys to both passing attacks, interruption is the key defensively, and going in the Aggies look to have an advantage there. It doesn't just have to be sacks, either. Simply getting pressure and forcing the opposing quarterback to move, and perhaps reload, can be just as effective in preventing completions. Batting down passes at the line and getting hits on the QB also serve. Keep an eye on this stat for both teams, and keep track of them all. The team with the highest combined number of sacks, hits, pressures and breakups at the line figures to be the winner.
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West Virginia will have to battle the flotilla of receivers with disciplined coverage. The Ags will go four-and five-wide, which will put pressure on Karl Joseph and K.J. Dillon in pass coverage. It will also bring West Virginia's linebackers into play, as A&M will try to get WVU's rugged run defenders into open space and force them into pass defense mode. The Mountaineers can counter with extra defensive backs, but can't totally sell out against the pass. Again, like WVU, A&M has a number of backs that are good enough to do damage when defenses back out of the box.
This game is obviously going to be one of cat and mouse. With both staffs very familiar with what the other does offensively, disguise, deception and duplicity will be critical. Will WVU come out in its nickel package in greater frequency? How will A&M attack the middle of the field, which has been a sore spot at times for Mountaineer pass coverage? And most of all, will the Aggies have a physical advantage late, as it can rotate its receivers more than the Mountaineers can their defensive backs?
WHERE'D THAT MASCOT COME FROM?
"Aggies" is a pretty boring nickname, having been derived from the school's original name -- Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University. While the school is now officially known as "Texas A&M", the Aggie moniker, used since the 1920s to describe students at the school, has held on, and been the official name of the student body and sports teams since 1949.
That's all offset, however, by Reveille, the school mascot. As with most of the best school traditions, the origin of Reveille isn't something contrived or devised with a marketing scheme, but born of ordinary events that grew into legendary status. In 1931, a group of cadets at A&M found a stray dog and brought it back to school. When the dog barked the next morning at the blowing of reveille, an immediate naming occurred, leading to a succession of seven different Reveilles over the years. As the highest ranking member of the corps of cadets, Reveille has special status on campus, and is cared for by an elite company of the corps. Currently, Reveille VIII patrols the campus and sidelines for the school
Traditions surrounding Reveille include the fact that if she sleeps on a cadet's bed, that cadet has to move to the floor. Also, if she attends a class and barks, that class is to immediately be dismissed. That's just cool.
THINGS TO WATCH
Will a shakeup on Texas A&M's coaching staff help or hurt the Aggies? Former Marshall head coach Mark Snyder, filling the defensive coordinator role in College Station, was fired the day after the regular season concluded, and will be replaced by linebackers coach Mark Hagen. Also, offensive line coach B.J. Anderson got the hook a week ago, while receivers coach David Beaty was hired as the head coach at Kansas. That means a third of the Aggie assistant coaches that started the season won't be on hand in Memphis.
With a month to prepare and scheme, but just 15 practices in which to implement any changes, it's hard to imagine any massive differences in A&M's approach to the game. More likely, we'll see a simplification of fronts and coverages as Hagen tries to fashion a defensive approach that will combat WVU's evolving offensive look -- especially against the run. Aggie foes gashed the front seven for 223 yards per game this year, while running 915 plays -- numbers that Sumlin couldn't bear and which led to Snyder's firing. Look for run support from Aggie safeties, some twists along the defensive front, and a concentrated effort on stopping the ground game.
Offensively, the plan is coordinated and implemented by Sumlin and coordinator Jake Spavital, so there's even less likelihood of a shakeup there. Different techniques might be emphasized during A&M's prep work, but it's not going to affect its offensive approach. Anything that changes will come from Sumlin and Spavital, and won't be motivated by the coaching changes on that side of the ball.
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Both squads have gone through multiple quarterbacks this year, but enter the game with different pictures behind the center. A&M saw Kenny Hill start the first two-thirds of the season, but since being suspended for the Louisiana Monroe game, he has not sniffed the field. Might head coach Kevin Sumlin be preparing to unleash him in this contest, especially as a running complement to Kyle Allen, who has performed reasonably well since replacing Hill?
On the West Virginia side, head coach Dana Holgorsen is keeping mystery alive by not naming a starter, and he's unlikely to do so until just before the game. Certainly, he wants to keep A&M guessing in its scheme preparations, but are the differences between Skyler Howard and Clint Trickett that great? Howard certainly ran better than Trickett in the final two games of the regular season, and gives WVU an additional dimension there, but it's not something that the Mountaineers will base their offense around. Pass defense shouldn't change as lot for the Aggies -- that's an area where execution, not play calls, will hold the most weight.
If Howard gets the call, watch for the occasional QB draw or run, but be more aware of what he might be able to do with a healthier receiving corps. Kevin White should be much better physically than he was in the last two games of the season, and WVU has to think it can also throw the ball against the shaky A&M defense, which gave up more than 500 yards per game over the second half of the season.
SOMETHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
It's been mentioned so much that it approaches the cliche' level of the importance of winning the turnover battle, but third down conversions are a killer stat in this contest.
As mentioned previously, both offenses thrive on rhythm. You can almost feel it, like the bass line in a driving rock song, when WVU or A&M start stringing first downs together. Eight yards, seven yards, five yards, a big gainer, four yards, six yards -- like a metronome, you can almost keep time with both attacks. Stopping that, and breaking up that rhythm, can best be effected with third down shutdowns.
Coming into the game, the Aggies are picking up 41% of their third down attempts, and have run 852 plays. WVU is allowing a conversion rate of just 31% while yielding 874 opposing snaps. On the flip side, WVU is converting 44% of the time, while A&M allows a 42% success rate. And in the biggest edge in this battle, the Mountaineers have run 1020 plays - an average of 85 per contest. That has WVU tied for the thid-best per game average in school history, trailing only the 167 team (86) and the 1970 squad (91).
Just like the turnover battle, this one is likely to tell the tale. The team that can come closest to its conversion rates will leave town with the trophy.