WVU linebackers Jeff Noechel and Scott Gyorko vs. Syracuse running backs Walter Reyes and Damien Rhodes
While this battle might appear to be as simple as WVU's linebackers tackling Orange tailbacks, there's much more to it than that. In addition to simply trying to bring down the Syracuse ball carriers, WVU's outside backers will have to contend with them in the passing game and prevent them from getting to the corners on sweeps and other wide running plays.
Syracuse again figures to run option, sweeps and power runs as part of its base offense, and it will be up to Noechel and Gyorko to avoid getting caught up in traffic as they flow to help contain those types of plays. And while they will get help from the Mountaineer spurs and bandits in stringing out those plays toward the sideline, it's also important that they get to the corner in a hurry to prevent a late cutback.
Noechel and Gyorko have the necessary speed to do so, but they will be battling big, and tall, offensive linemen as they attempt to see the field and keep track of the Orange ballcarriers. The shortest Syracuse offensive lineman stands 6-5, so seeing around or over any of the linemen will be a chore. Adding difficulty to the mix is the fact that Syracuse uses its tailbacks in its passing game as well. If the backs don't get the ball via handoff, that doesn't mean they aren't going to see it on that play.
WVU wide receiver Brandon Myles vs. Syracuse defensive back DeAndre LaCaille
Three and a half years into the Rich Rodriguez area, the Mountaineers are still searching for consistent productivity in the passing game. Might the opportunity be there this week against LaCaille, who is reportedly banged up?
LeCaille is a big, physical corner, who will use his size in attempts to slow receivers off the line and outmuscle them when the ball is in the air. Myles must not be intimidated in the face of such tactics, and needs to unveil his own aggressive streak, not only in blocking, but also in attacking the football in the air and in running patterns. That last point might sound a bit odd, but it often means the difference in getting open. Far too often, WVU receivers run patterns without full effort, which makes them easy to cover. On every play, pass catchers need to dig off the line, run hard into and out of breaks, and make sharp cuts. Those tactics, as well as the ability to just run past someone, are what make the difference between average and good receivers.
Can Myles do those things? Or will the strong effort of LeCaille pin him down again? The Mountaineer passing game might depend on the outcome of this fight.
WVU kickoff team vs. Syracuse kickoff returner Diamond Ferri
West Virginia has been blessed with some excellent kick return performers in recent seasons, but if there's one team that has matched them in that department, it's the Orange. Time and again, Syracuse fields dangerous return teams that block well, and coupled with shifty returners, the Orange always seem to be on the verge of running a kick back for a score. This year it's Ferri, who is averaging almost 29.5 yards per return.
Kick coverage is based on fundamentals and assignments. Stay in your coverage lane, get off blocks, don't outrun your teammate next to you. And oh yes, make a tackle in the open field. It all sunds simple, but in the heat of the game, it's easy to lose track of the guy next to you, or to see the ball going the opposite direction and get out of your coverage position.
Even when the coverage teams do everything right, the return team will occasionally pop a long return. That's what's scary about Cuse – Ferri has the speed and savvy to make things happen even when the coverage is good. Add in a mistake by the coverage team, and six points can be the result.
This contest could be much closer than the oddsmakers have it picked, and a big play on special teams could do even more to make it a nailbiter for Mountaineer fans.
THINGS TO WATCH
What will the crowd be like on Thursday? I think it's going to be a key factor in the game. The majority of Mountaineer fans seem to already be chalking this contest up as an easy win, and that's a dangerous sign, especially with an inconsistent team wearing the Gold and Blue.
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Remember that this is a battle for first place in the conference. Syracuse, at this point, doesn't care that its 3-3. All they know is that they are 1-0 in the league, the same as WVU. The winner assumes sole possession of first place, while the loser has to begin chasing and scoreboard watching. And since the head-to-head clash is the first tiebreaker in determining BCS status, a loss, in effect, puts the loser two games, not one, behind the winner. The last thing this Mountaineer team needs is a flat crowd, sitting on its hands. Or worse yet, one voicing its displeasure if things don't go right from the outset.
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Getting off to a good start has been another big key in WVU's success in 2004. The Mountaineers, keyed by their defense, have outscored opponents by the margin of 42-9 in the first quarter. What happens if WVU doesn't continue that play against the Orange? In the one game that WVU fell behind early in, the Mountaineers were unable to rally and suffered their only loss of the season. And while it's true that West Virginia did manage to rally from a small fourth-quarter deficit against Maryland, it's becoming apparent that the Terps are a mere shell of their former selves.
So, how would West Virginia handle, say, a 10-0 hole at the end of the first quarter? At some point this year, it's bound to happen, and when it does, the cohesiveness, concentration and spirit of this team will be put to the test. And to be honest, I'm not sure how it will play out.
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WVU's battle to contain Diamond Ferri on kickoff returns isn't the only special teams faceoff to watch. The Orange also excel at blocking kicks and scoring on turnovers. Syracuse has a string of 14 consecutive seasons with at least on speical teams touchdown, and hve rung up 321 such scores in the last 13 seasons.
Syracuse is also getting to opposing kickers with frightening regularity. Orange kick blockers have already rejected five kicks this season, which matches their total from all of last year. Junior free safety Anthony Smith is the biggest threat - he's gotten three of SU's punt blocks so far this year, and has five kick blocks overall in his career.
WVU's quirky punt protection scheme, which has been effective this year, will be put to the test by the agile Smith.