OK, so maybe Hunter and Leonard won't be meeting up face-to-face a great deal in Saturday's game. However, the areas in which both are most comfortable (the center of the line) will likely tell the tale for much of Rutgers' offensive success.
Hunter, as the middle anchor of West Virginia's three-man front line, will be counted on to hold his ground against the blocking of the Rutgers front. If he doesn't, Leonard will come rumbling through the line with a big head of steam, and if you've watched the Scarlet Knights at all this year, you know that's a scary sight. When the bruising runner, who also takes snaps at tailback, gets headed upfield, he's very difficult to tackle. Take him on high, and he brushes you away. Dive at his feet, and he's liable to leave cleat marks on your back or hurdle you altogether.
West Virginia can best defend Leonard (who we believe is the best player in the Big East) by forcing him to sidestep and keeping his momentum to a minimum. While he's still tough to handle at any time, defenders have a much better chance of controlling him when he is running toward the sideline.
To do that, WVU must control the A gaps on either side of the center and force Leonard to move laterally, and Hunter is the key to making that happen. Of course, a few Hunter hits of Leonard in the backfield, before he even gets started, wouldn't hurt either.
If there's ever a game in which the passing attack could break out and gain some much-needed confidence, this is it.
|WVU 4-1, 1-0
RU 3-1, 1-0
|Sat 10/08/05 Noon|
|Series: 26-4-2 WVU|
|TV: ESPN Regional|
|BCS: WVU 33: RU: 73|
|Line: WVU -3|
|Stats & Trends|
Head coach Rich Rodriguez has noted that teams stacking the line against the WVU run tend to put more of their defenders in the middle of the field, which can also clog the short passing lanes. If that's true, however, then Myles should be able to operate downfield against single coverage, as the Scarlet Knights are expected to load up against the run in the way that East Carolina did two weeks ago.
As we've noted before, throwing a lot of passes isn't a magic bullet. However, if the Knights, as Rodriguez said on Tuesday, will creep "closer and closer" to the line of scrimmage in the absence of a WVU passing attack, then the Mountaineer coaching staff has to give the aerial game a chance to succeed. If the first couple of tries don't connect, or of a receiver drops a pass, then that phase of the game can't go on the shelf. After all, WVU doesn't quit running the ball when there's a fumble or when yardage is lost on a play or two.
WVU kick coverage vs. Rutgers returner Willie Foster
While many players have been described by the phrase, ‘a threat to go all the way on any play', the Scarlet Knights truly have one that fits that description. Return man Willie Foster has run back two kicks (one kickoff and one punt) for touchdowns this year, and has three kick returns for scores in his career.
West Virginia, for its part, has been doing a decent job of defending returns. WVU is yielding just 20.9 yards per kickoff return and 6.2 yards per punt return this season. That's very close to WVU's "magic numbers", which are its goals for special teams performance. The Mountaineers shoot for holding kickoff return teams inside their own 25-yard line, and for yielding no more than five yards per punt return.
Of course, running kicks back all the way for a score always involves a little luck, no matter who is doing the returning. The blocking scheme for a return might be called just at the time a cover scheme that is ill-suited to combat the return is called. A coverage man might fall down, or two of them might veer out of their lanes and be blocked by a single man. Any of these factors, or a dozen more, can ruin the best-laid coverage plans.
The key in coverage is execution. Stay in your lane. Get of the block. Don't get too far ahead or behind of your teammates as you go downfield. Break down, and make the tackle. It sounds simple, but this is one area where fundamentals almost always win out.
THINGS TO WATCH
If WVU has a counterpart to Leonard, it's surely Owen Schmitt, who has the same combination of power and speed as the Rutgers junior. Schmitt, of course, is battling to find playing time in West Virginia's crowded backfield, but this game could be one in which he gets another chance to make a big contribution.
With the Mountaineers set to put Steve Slaton and Jason Gwaltney to work early, Schmitt could be the perfect complement, especially in the second half of a game that could be played in dicey weather conditions. If WVU is moving the ball on the ground, look for the Mountaineer coaching staff to run the big man inside behind a few trap blocks in the third and fourth quarters.
* * *
This could be WVU's first bad weather game this year, and the elements can always add a degree of uncertainty to any contest.
|RU Message Board|
|RU Official Site|
About a decade ago, West Virginia had a solid quarterback who couldn't grip or throw a wet ball very well. It wasn't anything he did wrong – it was simply something that gave him problems. And as a result, the Mountaineers had to change a few things up offensively when they played amidst the raindrops.
Of course, rain affects other aspects of the game as well. Pass coverage, tackling, changes of direction – all are affected when the skies open up. As you watch the game, try to compare the movements of players you've seen on dry land as opposed to what could be a wet track at Rutgers Stadium. Does Steve Slaton have the same cutting ability and burst of acceleration? Does Anthony Mims, if he plays, look tentative as he changes direction? Is the defensive line able to dig in and hold its ground? While it's true that both teams have to play in the same conditions, it's also true that the weather can affect one team more than the other.
* * *
Is this the biggest game for Rutgers in the past five years? Ten? Longer? There's probably not a right answer for that, but there are some things we can say with certainty. The entire stadium, minus the 4-5,000 Mountaineer fans, are going to be jacked up. Rutgers is playing for first place in the conference, and when is the last time you could have made that statement in October?
While it seems like we've been waiting forever for the so-called "sleeping giant" of Rutgers football to awake, that time could be close at hand. If it happens, the Scarlet Knights aren't likely to awaken like Smaug (those needing a reference need only read J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit), but this could be another step as they claw their way from comatose to fully alert.
West Virginia has to do two things in order to come home from the Garden State with a win. First, they must be prepared to play from the opening kick. A quick start from the home team could be just the boost they need to put some distance between themselves and the Mountaineers early on, and it could put a dent in the psyche of a WVU team that might be just the tiniest bit shaky after last week's loss.
Second, West Virginia must avoid turnovers. The Mountaineers were among the nation's best in turnover margin a couple of years ago, but this year WVU's young team has been much more generous. WVU has suffered 12 turnovers in the season's first five games, while Rutgers has given the ball away but three times – all on interceptions. If that ratio continues on Saturday, it cold very well be the home team perched atop the conference on Saturday evening.