WVU quarterback Rasheed Marshall vs. UC's secondary
OK, so this is a confrontation that happens every week. However, given the circumstances of this game, its importance is highlighted.
Coming off a four touchdown performance against East Carolina, Rasheed must avoid the temptation to get greedy and go for the big strike by throwing into the teeth of coverage. UC's secondary is experienced (two seniors and two juniors) and has a trailer full of preseason honors to its credit.
While Cincinnati can be expected to get up on the line to try to stop the run, that doesn't mean that UC's defensive backs will necessarily be at a disadvantage. They are solid one on one defenders, and Rasheed will have to be careful not to be baited into making throws into coverage.
If there is one target WVU might go after, it would be 5-10 corner Daven Holley, who was a wide receiver for part of 2002 before moving over to defensive back in the middle of the season.
WVU linebacker Kevin McLee vs. UC tackle Steve Eastlake
As West Virginia's designated pass rusher, McLee has come the closest of any of West Virginia's defenders to recording sacks. He's gotten to quarterbacks a few times this year, but has been just a split-second too late to get the takedown.
Against UC, that will have to change. McLee, along with linebacker Adam Lehnortt (who moves to left end in passing situations), simply must get Guidugli out of his rhythm. A couple of early sacks, or at least pressures that force Guidugli out of the pocket, are essential if the Mountaineers hope to slow down the Bearcat air assault.
Of course, WVU will also need to improve their pressure out of their standard defensive sets. UC figures to throw early and often against the Mountaineers, who make stopping the run priority number one. However, it's McLee, who has the chance to come into the game fresh in passing situations, who holds a key to putting the heat on the quarterback.
WVU tackle Garin Justice vs. UC defensive end Trent Cole
After acquitting himself well against Wisconsin, Justice will face a different sort of challenge from Cole, who is a nimble and speedy edge rusher that lived in East Carolina's backfield during UC's 40-3 win.
There's no questioning Justice's strength or work ethic. He has built himself into a solid Division 1 player, and has had answers for everything Wisconsin and ECU threw at him. This matchup figures to be his toughest yet.
THINGS TO WATCH
It's probably too early to tell for sure, but Cincinnati's team unity seems to be much better this year than it was in 2002, especially on defense. Last year's defensive star, end Antwan Peak, was a divisive force on the Bearcat defense, at least against WVU. He whined, lost his cool and was finally pulled from the game by UC head coach Rick Minter.
We've seen it happen many times before - addition by subtraction. This Cincinnati team appears, at least in their comments, to be a more tightly knit group. Watch how the team acts on the sidelines early in the game - there's usually something to be learned from players' demeanor.
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Cincinnati is trying something that didn't work very well for WVU last year - two defensive coordinators. Mark Criner and Mike Kolakowski, who tutor the Bearcat safeties and linebackers, formulate the game plans and call the defensive sets. However, Minter is really in control of the defense, as he sets up the outline of the week's gameplan and can veto calls on the sideline.
Can that lead to confusion during a game? With three different people working and making calls, and all within the tight timeframes imposed by WVU's Spot the Ball attack, there's no margin for error or time for discussion. It would pay to keep an eye on Cincinnati's defense to see if they are getting lined up on time, or if they are scrambling to get their call and get in position before WVU snaps the ball.
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West Virginia's pass rush has been discussed nearly to death (and we're as guilty as anyone), but one factor that hasn't been looked as is pass breakups.
If they can't get to the quarterback, Mountaineer pass rushers must work on getting their hands up and into passing lanes. Of course, that's not a factor on deep throws, but on short passes, WVU's defensive line must get a push and then get into Guidugli's field of vision. One or two pass bat downs by the defensive line, and the quarterback has to think about throwing the ball around rushers, which can lead to poor passes.