West Virginia's edge blockers aren't blessed with great natural athletic ability, but have made themselves into solid players through the dint of hard work and sheer force of will. Whether that will be enough to keep Tapp from disrupting the Mountaineer offense remains to be seen.
The Mountaineer pair certainly has the size to combat Tapp, who will give up some 40 pounds to his WVU opponents. The Hokie senior, however, has his own ace in the hole – a quick burst that often leaves blockers reaching for air as he gets into the backfield.
Tapp has just 12 tackles this year, but one-third of them are behind the line of scrimmage, including three sacks. And his totals don't do justice (but hopefully not Justice) to the kind of havoc he creates with his penetration. He is a disruptive force up front that often alters the path of a runner or the execution of a play – things that don't show up in the stat sheet but certainly help the effectiveness of the Hokie defense.
For West Virginia to function effective on offense, Justice and Garrett must keep Tapp on his side of the line, and under control on passing downs. To achieve that, they must get in to Tapp's torso and get their hands on the Tech defender. An in-close battle favors WVU' size and strength advantage, whereas a speed game on the corner tilts the battle toward the Hokies.
WVU underneath pass coverage vs. Virginia tight end Jeff King
King, who has nine career touchdown catches, is a tough challenge for any team, and poses a special problem for the WVU defense.
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ECU did a good jog with this last week, hitting several receivers who had circled into the zones vacated by blitzing linebackers, spurs and bandits. You can bet that the Hokies have several option routes in their passing game this week that allow King to read the defense and find open spots in the coverage. Keeping an eye on King, especially on obvious passing downs, will be instructive early in the game. Watch how he runs his routes, and where he goes in the WVU defense. At some point, he'll be the primary option on a big third down play, and if the Mountaineers can find him and keep the ball out of his hands, they will have eliminated the biggest weapon in Tech's passing game arsenal.
Although the teams play different fronts (Tech is in an even 4-3, while WVU plays the odd 3-3) both defenses use an extra safety in different spots on the field and scheme to get that player unblocked to the ball. For WVU, it's Lorello, who leads the team in tackles and has a knack for making big stops in the backfield as well as in one on one situations. For the Hokies, it's Rouse, who likely would lead his team as well were it not for the trio of outstanding linebackers in front of him.
While the players are called different names, and have different assignments in their respective schemes, in the end they wind up in similar spots – close to the ballcarrier. Lorello gets more of a chance to line up close to the line of scrimmage and make plays behind the line, while Rouse has more of a traditional strong safety's duties, but each has the ability to make the big play. Lorello has four tackles behind the line, including three sacks, to go with an interception and two pass break ups, while Rouse has two interceptions and three pass breakups to go with his 16 tackles.
For Tech to run the ball, they must account for Lorello and get him blocked. If he's running free, the Hokies will have problems. And for West Virginia to move the ball, they are going to have to figure out a way to pass it on occasion. And when they do, they must find Rouse first, who is liable to pop up anywhere in pass coverage.
THINGS TO WATCH
Rich Rodriguez noted earlier this week that WVU has to run the ball to win. If that's the case, the Mountaineers must use a variety of runs in order to gain any ground against the stingy Hokie front.
Of course, WVU must try to run some power football at Tech, because the book on beating speed defenses is to not let it come into play. There will likely be a number of isolation plays in evidence from the Mountaineers on Saturday.
However, WVU must also try to get Tech overpursuing and out of position, and gash the defense in the resulting cracks. Rasheed Marshall's touchdown run a year ago at Tech was an example of just such a play. The Mountaineers might also use a couple of reverses and end arounds, which have been staples of their attack thus far, to achieve the same result. As you watch West Virginia's offense, especially on the first couple of possessions, keep in mind that some of those early play calls are designed to see how the Tech defense reacts, and to set up plays to take advantage of those responses later in the game.
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The second item is something of an outgrowth of the first. A year ago in Blacksburg, Rodriguez admitted that his playcalling got stuck in a rut, which contributed to the loss.
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However, one of the biggest items to keep an eye on is this: has Rodriguez learned his lesson from a year ago? Will he try to do things differently if the Mountaineer offense is sputtering in the third quarter?
Last week against East Carolina, the answer appeared to be no. WVU continued trying to penetrate the inside zone with isos and quarterback draws against a Pirate defense that was more overloaded than a boat of political refugees from Cuba. As friend of the site Bill Gleason pointed out yesterday, West Virginia completed three-fourths of its passes against East Carolina. If the Mountaineers had thrown thirty passes instead of 20, the game probably wouldn't have been nearly as close.
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Since we're on a roll with this topic, I might as well bring it to its logical conclusion. I know that the number of passes thrown doesn't automatically translate into victory. I know that West Virginia has to run the ball to be successful. However, I can guarantee that an offense that only runs the inside zone and throws passes down the line of scrimmage doesn't stand much chance of being successful against the Hokies, especially an offense that is still struggling to settle on a consistent starting five up front.
West Virginia has to throw a few passes between the hash marks. They have to go for the quick slants (supposedly a staple of the spread offense), the deep post and the deep fade. They have to throw a fifteen-yard square in over the linebackers and under the safeties.
I understand that the quarterbacks are still inexperienced, and that the wide receivers are still growing. But there's talent there. Brandon Myles and Pat White and Darius Reynaud and Adam Bednarik have the ability to make the passing game go. It doesn't have to look like Texas Tech's. It just has to be used enough to keep Tech from putting four linemen, three linebackers, the rover, the free safety, two trainers and a video guy six inches off the line of scrimmage.