James has been very good in fall camp, booming kicks with excellent hang time and putting many of his kicks toward the sideline. He'll have to duplicate that performance against Leonhard, a dangerous punt return man who burned WVU with a big return.
Of course, this isn't simply a head to head contest. West Virginia's coverage team must stay disciplined by keeping in their lanes and styaing level with each other in order to close off any gaps to the dangerous Badger.
In a game where West Virginia figures to need a break or two along the way, the Mountaineers simply can't afford to give away anything on special teams. One big return by Leonhard could quell any chances of a WVU victory.
WVU tackle ??? vs. Wisconsin defensive end Erasmus James
This battle was going to be a difficult one at best, even with WVU's Tim Brown at the spot. Jones is a big and quick end who makes plays all over the field, and the matchup with Brown figured to be a highlight in the trenches.
With Brown now out with an achilles tendon injury, the Mountaineers' have a few options, but all will boil down to one thing - there's going to be an inexperienced player facing off against a talented senior who had a big day against WVU last year.
Candidates for the job include Josh Stewart, Garin Justice, Travis Garrett, Mike Watson or Jeff Berk. And no matter who moves in to take the spot, it will cause disruption along the line as players move to different positions to fill the gap left by Brown's injury.
With Wisconsin figuring to jam the line of scrimmage and go with one on one coverage in the secondary, this matchup must be won by the Mountaineer receivers if WVU is to mount a serious challenge.
Of course, Starks will have something to say about that. He's an accomplished defender who broke up eight passes last season, so his shorter stature wasn't a big handicap.
Still, West Virginia must attack downfield to win this game, and come up with a jump ball or two and put some big plays on the board. Neal, in particular, was much more aggressive in going up and getting the ball this fall, and if he can do it during the opener the Mountaineers may be able to open a bit of room for thier rushing attack.
THINGS TO WATCH
WVU is not the only school in this game with a resurrected kicking game. After a shaky 2002 campaign, junior R. J. Morse rebounded during spring practice and fall camp to recapture his form.
With both teams coming off up and down season, special teams play figures to have an even bigger impact than normal on the contest. the team that's best able to mount a consistent "third watch" will have a big leg up toward getting their season off to a good start.
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Fans of strategy and formations should keep an eye peeled for a few new looks on both sides of the ball. Of course, we don't want to give away any secrets, but based on fall camp, there should be some alignments on the field that are different from what was seen in 2002.
The new looks are designed to get the Mountaineers' best players on the field, and take advantage of some skills that could be helpful in certain situations.
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It may not seem possible, but Rasheed Marshall appears to be a step faster than he was last season. Due to that fact, we expect Rasheed to run the ball even more this year.
There's always the ocncern of injury, of course, but the fact is that Rasheed is one of West Virginia's primary offensive weapons. If he's not used, then he becomes like a beautiful car that sits in someone's garage all the time because they're afraid it might get dinged or wrecked if they drive it.
With the big question mark now squarely on the offensive line, WVU's best chance to move the ball might be in creating gaps in Wisconsin's run defense by first dropping back to throw, and then scrambling. And as he showed during fall camp, Rasheed has the ability to turn a crack in the defense into a first down.
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Last year, three big personal foul penalties against the WVU defense aided Badger drives. Although two of those calls were borderline at best, the fact remained that the Mountaineer stop troops created some pretty big self-inflicted wounds on their trip to Madison.
Keep an eye on West Virginia's penalty total - especially those big 15-yarders. If those can be avoided, and the penalty total kep around 30-40 yards, that would be a big boost to WVU's chances.