WVU defensive tackles David Upchurch and Antwan Lake vs. Notre Dame guards Sean Mahan and Kurt Vollers
OK, so this is a repeat of a matchup from a couple of games ago. That doesn't dilute its importance.
Upchurch and Lake have to stop the first leg of Notre Dame's triple option attack, and also hold their ground (and hopefully get penetration) as Notre Dame quarterback Carlyle Holiday comes down the line.
Defending the option is assignment football, and Lake and Upchurch's are fairly straightforward.
First, they must ward off the blocks of the Irish interior line and clog the middle against the fullback dive. If the dive is consistently successful, then linebackers must come up and help contain it, which leaves the ends even more vulerable to the quarterback/tailback portions of the option.
Upchurch and Lake also need to occasionally get penetration, or at least, avoid getting pushed off the line of scrimmage. Much of the success seen by WVU's opponents this year on sweeps and option plays has resulted from shoving defensive linemen back, which in turn has jammed up linebackers and safeties flowing to the play.
You can usually tell pretty quickly if an option is going to be successful. Watch those inside defensive linemen - whoever wins that battle has a big leg up on making the play.
WVU tight ends Tim Frost and Tory Johnson vs. Notre Dame linebacker Rocky Boiman
We know that West Virginia's tight ends aren't a big part of the attack. But with Notre Dame concentrating on West Virginia's running attack, and the Mountaineer coaching staff needing to reestablish some confidence on offense, what better method than to get another weapon into the attack?
Opposing defenses have begun to jump some of the short routes that the wide and slot receivers are running, so we think that the tight end might catch three or four passes this week. If those are in critical situations that produce a first down (or better yet, a score), the tight end could be a big part of Saturday's game.
The key for WVU's tight ends is to take advantage of the opportunities they get. Drops, or worse yet, fumbles, can't be a part of the picture. Frost and Johnson should have the speed to get open against Boiman, who is likely to be left in man coverage as Notre Dame spreads out to cover three wide receivers.
THINGS TO WATCH:
We'd recommend keeping an eye on Corey McIntyre, as he figures to get a lot of snaps at inside linebacker. Grant wiley isn't expected to play, and if he does he will likely be limited, so McIntyre's play will be critical for WVU.
Corey has had his best games at linebacker this year, and after seeing very little time (for unknown reasons) against Virginia Tech last week, figures to have something to prove against the Irish.
Some other personnel decisions are also worth keeping an eye on. Who will start in the revolving gate at cornerback? Lance Frazier? Brian King? Lew Daniels? Will Kevin Freeman again get time at defensive end? Where will Adam Lehnortt show up?
In the unexpected category, Todd James will get the nod at punter over Mark Fazzolari, who has had trouble at times this year with low kicks. The lack of height on the ball has led to opponents putting up several lengthy kick returns, so James will get the early call this week.
At a time when it was hoped that the defense would be solidified, position changes and uncertainty still abound as the staff looks for the right combination of players and positions.
Against Ohio, Phil Elmassian dropped the linebackers further off the line of scrimmage to help them flow to the option better. In theory, that was a sound move, but in practice, it didn't work. Mountaineer linebackers still got caught up in traffic, and the Bobcats ran their option with near impunity.
Will WVU change their approach against Notre Dame? Did the problems against Ohio stem more from execution than from scheme? Keep an eye on West Virginia's second line of defense, and note where the linebackers, rover and whip start out. Are they close to the line, or are they dropping off? Their play will likely tell the tale in this critical game for both squads.