WVU - USF Matchups

West Virginia will try to cap a perfect Big East season by winning these faceoffs in Tampa on Saturday evening.

MATCHUPS AND STORYLINES

WVU safeties Mike Lorello and Eric Wicks vs. USF running back Andre Hall

Hall is the second-best back WVU will have faced this year (Louisville's Michael Bush is a clear number one), and the Mountaineers will have to have their strong safeties working in tandem in order to keep him under control.

Lorello excels at getting into the backfield and making tackles for losses, but he will have to be sure to control his gap assignments so that Hall, who is very good at breaking off a play to the backside of where it was originally called, can't rip off a long gain on a busted play. Similarly, Wicks will have to make sure that he doesn't overrun plays in pursuit and leave a seam that Hall can exploit.

West Virginia's spur and bandit are, in many ways, the keys to the Mountaineer defense. Two years ago, WVU's relative unfamiliarity with all of the nuances of the positions meant that each spot had clearly defined roles. While that avoided confusion on the defensive side, it also made it less complex for the offense to figure out. This year, WVU has been able to play more games with the two spots, and to interchange many of their assignments. Thus, something the spur did exclusively two years ago might now be assigned to the bandit, and vice versa. That has made the West Virginia defense much harder to figure out.

As the ball is snapped, watch Wicks and Lorello to get an appreciation of just how much they do in the defense. They might drop into pass coverage, be it zone or man-to-man, they might blitz, they might play gap containment. But whatever they do, it will certainly be with one eye on the excellent USF tailback.

WVU running back Owen Schmitt vs. USF linebackers

We've ignored this potential matchup for a couple of weeks, on the theory that it's never a major part of the Mountaineers game plan. That's a cop out however – just because Schmitt doesn't get the ball 15 times a game doesn't mean his carries aren't important. WVU's rampaging runner makes the most of every opportunity he gets, and many times he finds running room due to overreaction on the part of opposing linebackers.

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Game Info
WVU 9-1, 6-0
USF 6-4, 4-2
Sat 12/3/05 7:30 p.m.
Raymond James Stadium
Series: First Meeting
TV: None
BCS: WVU-11 USF-45
Line: WVU -7
Stats & Trends
With Pat White and Steve Slaton drawing a great deal of attention in the WVU backfield, Schmitt is often able to take a quick handoff and burst through the line before the backers, who tend to follow the flow of the freshman pair, are able to correct their errors and fill the gap that Schmitt is aiming for. And as anyone who has watched West Virginia this year knows, Schmitt in the open field isn't a treat for any defender, of any size, to take on.

In order to keep Schmitt from ripping off one of his signature rumbles, South Florida's linebackers will have to play with all the discipline they can muster. They will have to avoid the temptation of trying to jump WVU's running plays and beat Slaton or White to the point of attack, because as soon as they do that a few times, Schmitt will certainly get the ball, and usually going in a direction counter to the flow. He ripped off 80 yards against Maryland on such plays, and is always a threat to do so against an overpursuing defense.

WVU cornerback Dee McCann vs. USF receivers Amarri Jackson and Johnny Peyton

At 6-5, both Jackson and Peyton make big targets for quarterback Pat Julmiste, and will be a handful for the 5-11 McCann. Both play the X, or backside receiver position in USF's offense, which tries to isolate that receiver in single coverage down the field. USF will likely throw two or three long balls to the X, even if McCann has tight coverage, due to their height and size advantage.

Despite playing the same position, Jackson and Peyton are the two leading wide receivers on the team. Jackson has 18 catches and averages a huge 23.3 yards per catch, while Peyton is right behind with 16 receptions for a 19.1 yards per reception average. Like West Virginia, USF doesn't throw it a lot, but when they do, they usually get good productivity from it.

McCann will have to use every ounce of his 195 pounds to battle Jackson and Peyton, who both weigh about the same as the West Virginia cornerback. McCann likes physical play, so he's not likely to back down, but he will have a tough fight to keep the tall USF pair from winning jump balls downfield.

THINGS TO WATCH

The intensity and focus of each team is likely to be a major factor in the way this season ending-game plays out.

Although many members of the media have labeled this as a "meaningless game", it's anything but – a fact that would be apparent to anyone giving more than a moment's though to the contest (which eliminates, of course, much of the media). This game is important to West Virginia for several reasons, as it offers the chance to post a perfect league record, maintain a lofty BCS status, and head into the Sugar Bowl with a six-game winning streak. For USF, it's a chance to own wins over the top two teams in the league and redeem itself from the egg it laid last week at Connecticut.

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Now that we've established there are things to play for this week, we can more easily identify those items to keep an eye on as the game unfolds. Both teams will certainly show some emotion during introductions and the first few plays, but the key will be to identify the team that retains that level of intensity throughout the game. If either team falls behind, will it resort to the ‘it doesn't really matter' defense and begin mailing it in? The thought here is that won't happen, but if it does, the game could get ugly in the second half.

USF did head off one possible distraction when it signed head coach Jim Leavitt to a long-term extension on Wednesday. Had the Bulls' administration allowed the uncertainty over Leavitt's status to remain (he was mentioned as the top candidate to replace Bill Snyder at Kansas State) it could have had an adverse effect on USF's play during its final two games. With that possibility out of the way for now, South Florida will be able to focus all of its energies on the Mountaineers.

* * *

Will, as one West Virginia beat writer suggested, WVU throw the ball more against USF just to get some work in? I think not, and here's why.

The writer, like so many observers, assumes that teams have to throw the ball in order to defeat good, fast defenses. They further assume that if said defenses put seven or eight men in the box, that West Virginia won't be able to run the ball. In looking ahead to the likely Sugar Bowl matchup with LSU or Georgia, the third assumption is made that the Mountaineers will have to throw the ball 25 or 30 times in order to win. Those assumptions, however, are off base.

First, West Virginia has so much variety in its running game, that even loading the box isn't a guarantee of stopping the Mountaineer rushing attack. WVU can run stretch plays, isos, options, reverses, and block them any number of different ways as well. That sort of flexibility in the running game means that West Virginia can still rush the ball against defenses loaded to stop it.

The second point is that if West Virginia does throw the ball more, many of the throws are likely to be "long handoffs" – that is, horizontal passes to wideouts, screens to the backs, and other short throws that have a good chance of success. WVU isn't likely to begin throwing a bunch of 15 or 20 yard patterns, simply because that is not what it is best at. Also, throwing the ball to counteract a fast defense often isn't the best way to attack it, as anyone who watched the Alabama-Auburn game can attest.

I don't expect WVU to top the twenty mark in pass attempts this Saturday, and I'd be surprised if it exceeds it by much, if any, in its bowl game.


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