A Look Inside West Virginia's Match-up Against FCS Foe Youngstown State

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - For our subscribers, an in-depth dose of analysis from West Virginia's match-up with Youngstown State this Saturday.

It's easy to analyze the match-up and again say it's all about the Mountaineers; that truth will hold whenever WVU faces an overmatched foe. But current Youngstown State and former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini had an interesting take on the personnel at the FCS level. He said some of his starters would also start at Nebraska, while the majority of them, and some of the reserves, would have a chance to play. That's far from locking in any YSU player at the major collegiate level. But it raises the proven idea that many of the players at that level are overlooked for any number of reasons. Lack of size, speed, quickness, power and academics in some instances.

Some were late bloomers, and didn't fully realize their college potential until they reached their early 20's and spent three years in a college strength and conditioning program. In truth, there probably are a handful of Penguins who would see significant time at a program like Nebraska. The NCAA cap on scholarship numbers has tightened competition across the board. The second teams of programs like Michigan, Notre Dame and Oklahoma used to be better than most opponents starters. That edge is gone now, and those programs have ebbed more over the last two decades, though all three are set for strong seasons this year. 

The numbers game still plagues at the FCS level, though. Schools have just 63 scholarships compared to 85 for FBS programs, and it's a case where depth, in addition to superior talent, wins out in the end. There's a significant chance it happens again with WVU and Youngstown State. But if the Mountaineers come out flat and sans focus, it's worth taking a look at areas the Penguins could exploit. 

First, there may be no more senior-laden defense than YSU's, which starts nine seniors in what it lists as 12 starters. That includes the entire secondary - and a nickel back in Eric Thompson - along with four of its front seven. All-Missouri Valley Conference first-team selection LeRoy Alexander returns at corner. The Nebraska transfer led the team with four interceptions and ranked second in tackles with 67 (38 solo). A Toledo native, Alexander (6-0, 195 lbs.) has good range and instincts, and breaks on the ball effectively. The entire secondary shows adequate size, with the smallest player at 6-0, 185 pounds and the tallest being fellow corner David Rivers, a 6-2, 185-pound upperclassmen from Miami.

Defensive end Derek Rivers, the school's all-time sack leader with 27, has flashed NFL potential and opened the season with a sack, fumble recovery and two tackles for loss against Duquesne. This will be another test for the Mountaineer offensive line, and whoever Ron Crook decides will start on the outside. With West Virginia sans Yodny Cajuste for the rest of the year, and the return of Adam Pankey from a one-game suspension, keep an eye on who the team runs out there first. The most recent depth chart, released Tuesday, listed Colton McKivitz at left tackle and Marcell Lazard at right, with Pankey the back-up behind Tony Matteo at left guard. Pankey is best suited at that spot, but as bounced between the interior and tackle before, and it'll be interesting to watch that progression this game and into the open week.

The line, as expected, is slightly undersized, and could be overwhelmed by WVU's front. Youngstown State did limit Duquesne to just 34 yards on 21 carries, which forced the Dukes to throw; the results were less than stellar as they managed to complete just 50 percent of their passes with an average of 6.3 yards per attempt. But the personnel differences between Duquesne and West Virginia are so vast its incomparable. What isn't was the execution for YSU. The Penguins were rarely out of position and tackled effectively, even in space. Pelini has earned his reputation as a defensive coach, and now has brother Carl as coordinator. Carl was the DC at Nebraska from 2008-11, and made an immediate impact with the Penguins as they allowed just 288.7 yards per game a season ago, their fewest since 2002.

Foes amassed just 116.7 yards passing per contest, the lowest total since 1976 (116.1), and the 41.1 completion percentage by the opposition was the lowest by an opponent since 1980 (40.6). Add in that Youngstown finished first in fewest passing yards allowed, tied for first in fewest first downs allowed, were fifth in pass-efficiency defense, seventh in total defense and ninth in third-down conversion defense, and one can see the strides made.

It's here that YSU will have to show any kind of edge. Due to the very nature of the game, offense's typically take a bit longer to reach full potential. West Virginia showed that last week, when it didn't finish drives as well as it would have liked and missed on a handful of passes, including an open touchdown to Ka'Raun White from inside the red zone. The Mountaineers, to be fair, did many things well. They protected, ran effectively, had efficient and gritty starting quarterback play, and showed an ability to avoid turnovers when the ball is in the hands of Howard and the starters. But there's a chance with any complacency that the offense could be off on timing, perhaps more so than in the opener. Passes could be dropped, fumbles punched out, etc. (We won't get into the potential for special teams to make a major impact; it could every game, but thus far the Mountaineers have been solid there, and the hunch here is they show improvement in the second game.)

Youngstown State has the talent to take advantage of any WVU offensive miscues. West Virginia is again expecting the Penguins, like Missouri, to try and take away the big plays over the top, sitting in a two deep at times, and always having one safety to protect. That could open the running game, and it reads here that will be imperative to establishing toughness, the tone of the contest and to allow the depth to take effect in the third and fourth quarters. The Mountaineers can't get too greedy too early and try to score on big plays, even if the crowd gets restless with a couple three and outs, or merely 10-20 yard drives. 

It has to work its game against the YSU defense and use its size and numbers edge to secure the win as the game progresses, not in the first few series. Why do we note that, of the two "main" sides of the ball, that this is where the underdogs have a legit chance? Because WVU's defense, despite its losses, is still playing swarming, fast football, and should be able to at least limit a Penguin offense struggling to find consistency. Just one YSU player along the offensive line started every game last year, and that's carried into this season as already right guard Brian Eisenhuth missed the opener with a broken toe after being absent the final six games last year with an injury. Three different centers saw time a year ago, and eight different players had at least one start.

Youngstown racked up 610 yards of total offense against Duquesne, the seventh-most in school history. But it also was limited to totals of 24, 24, 23, 21 and eight last season, and even the highest of those totals won't likely be enough to beat West Virginia. In looking at the series history of WVU's contests with FCS foes, whenever the games were close it wasn't for a lack of defense. The Mountaineers have allowed an average of just 10.2 points per game (132 overall with a 13-0 all-time mark) against FCS opponents, and just twice allowed 20 or more.

The closest games were the 33-20 win over Liberty in 2009 and the 24-17 squeaker against William & Mary in 2013. In both games, the defenses performed well, holding foes to 17 or fewer points more than halfway through the third quarter. It was the offense that never truly established the ability to move the ball and finish drives, and that's what could plague West Virginia in this one.

WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said he expects the YSU offense to feature the run, then throw to tight ends and safe receiver routes to run clock and limit opposing offensive possessions. Thus, if WVU tries to force plays on offense and ends the first few drives without points, suddenly it's midway through the second quarter in a tight tussle with the underdog building confidence and momentum. 

What the Mountaineers desire is a crisp, solid performance on all three sides where fundamentals and winning the line of scrimmage are at the forefront. Wrap tackle well, protect the pocket and stay within the game plan and the personal and personnel skill set. Do that, and the evident advantages will eventually emerge.

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