One reoccurring theme this week among West Virginia defensive coaches and players has been discussing the element of surprise that facing a team with a brand new offense in its opener poses. Mountaineer defensive line coach Bruce Tall did acknowledge that it's been somewhat challenging to prepare for Missouri's offense over the last two weeks, but when describing his group's preparation he noted that he is more concerned with what his defensive line does than the Tigers offense.
"I think when you're playing a team like that, when you have so many unknowns, you have to do what you do and understand what your scheme is and use your tools that you have in your scheme," Tall said.
The Mountaineers defensive line should hold a big advantage over Missouri's green offensive line, which only returns one player with any starting experience. Part of what makes the Mountaineer defensive line so good is the group's familiarity with what Tall wants them to do in the scheme. That only comes from experience and defensive ends Christian Brown and Noble Nwachukwu have a combined 40 starts between them entering Saturday's contest, while nose guard Darrien Howard has played significant snaps relieving Kyle Rose in each of the past three seasons. Tall discussed the defensive line's role in the 3-3-5 and why he feels it's a very friendly scheme for defensive linemen to fit into.
"The beauty of the 3-3-5 defense is there are so many angles that you can hit them from and you have to protect all of the different gaps," Tall said. "(the offense) doesn't know who's coming - who's that fourth or fifth rusher, who's that sixth rusher - so you keep (the offense) off balance, that's they key."
While West Virginia's defenders will try to keep the Missouri offense off balance despite the unknowns they face, there is some familiarity entering the match-up. Mountaineer defenders (and fans) should remember Oklahoma transfer Alex Ross all to well, as the running back transfer took a kick return to the house in 2014. That kick return killed WVU's momentum in a game where they were leading the Sooners 24-17 nearing halftime. The Sooners capitalized on the momentum and defeated West Virginia 45-33 in the game. Tall talked about Ross and what he will bring to a Missouri offense that was badly needing big play ability prior to his arrival.
"(Alex Ross) is a big back, he's a strong back and he's a fast back," Tall said. "He's got all of the things you want. It's a blessing for (Missouri) for him to fall into their lap."
After talking about Ross, Tall shifted to Missouri's new offensive coordinator Joseh Heupel, who is also an Oklahoma transplant (prior to spending last season as an offensive coordinator at Utah St.).
"We just have to get a feel (for Heupel's offense)," Tall said. "Coach Gibson wants to get into the game and get a feel for how (Heupel) is calling the game. I think you have previous stuff you can study from but every year is different and it's a new team, it's a new program. We have got to be able to adapt and adjust in the first game."
The sample size of Missouri running Josh Heupel's offense is virtually non-existent, so that small selection of cut-ups forced West Virginia defenders to watch a myriad of schools running Heupel's offense. Defensive linemen Christian Brown divulged what he and other Mountaineers studied when preparing for the new offense that Missouri will roll out on Saturday.
"I have watched (Missouri's) spring game and I watched some of their games from back in the past," Brown said. "There offensive line is kind of young so it's kind of hard to pick up film for them but they're a talented team and I'm just looking forward to coming out with a win."
Specifically Brown pointed to some of the other schools that Heupel and other schools that coaches on the offensive staff have worked on in the past to glean some intelligence and familiarity on what they may see come game time on Saturday. Brown mentioned one game inparticular that they re-watched to prepare.
"We watched Oklahoma film when we went against them in 2014," Brown said. "We have been picking up some stuff."
That was the the aforementioned game in which Alex Ross took a kick return to paydirt. It was alsoOklahoma running back Samaje Perine's coming out party as the then-freshman back ran to the tune of 34 carries for 242 yards. While Heupel was calling plays in the booth for that one, these Missouri Tigers aren't built like that Oklahoma offense was and the chances are relatively low of the Tigers replicating that performance. If Missouri does plan come out in unbalanced sets and try to overpower the West Virginia defense, the resistance will start up front with the Mountaineers most experienced unit: the senior-laden defensive line.