WVU bandit/spur Eric Wicks and Charles Pugh vs. MU running back Ahmad Bradshaw
Much has been made of the anticipated clash of Marshall's passing attack with West Virginia's defensive secondary, but the key to any Herd upset hopes will probably ride with Bradshaw. A talented runner, Bradshaw will face a different look in WVU's 3-3-5 defense, and may find opponents in positions where he's not used to seeing them.
Much of West Virginia's defensive strategy will be predicated on keeping Wicks free to run with the ball, and he, along with Pugh, must make plays when they are kept clean of blockers. It can take a while for running backs to adjust to going against odd stack defense, and how well Bradshaw is able to do that (along with his line's ability to create space for him) will have a big effect on the Herd's offensive success.
WVU special teams vs. MU special teams
One of the truths of the game is that superior teams excel not only offensively and defensively, but also on special teams. Squads that have league championship hopes are usually deep enough to field excellent athletes on special teams – especially coverage and return squads. Of course, kickers and punters are a factor as well, but teams that can put players on the field who can play in space – that is, make tackles and deliver blocks in the open field – often gain a huge advantage over their opponents.
When these units take the field on Saturday, compare the speed at which each plays. Are WVU's coverage teams beating blocks and getting to MU's return men? Is the Herd able to bottle up West Virginia's proven kick return teams? The winner of this battle will gain a decided edge in the battle for the…er…what is that trophy called again?
WVU quarterback Patrick White vs. MU pass defense
While the Mountaineers will certainly run the ball, a number of eager eyes will be on White, who concentrated this summer on all aspects of the passing game. White does look to be throwing the ball with a bit more consistency, but the key will be the skill that he shows in reading coverages and making good decisions with the ball.
This year, White may have the chance to hold on to the ball for a second or two more – enough to find a second, or perhaps even a third, option in the pass pattern. However, the key for White is to not force this to happen. When in doubt, he needs to run it.
Marshall can be expected to press WVU's wideouts and bring blitzes in an attempt to ruffle White's composure. However, blitzing too many players can lead to gaps in coverage, which White can certainly exploit with his feet. It remains to be seen if he can do the same with his arm.
THINGS TO WATCH
The first thing to observe when WVU comes out to warm up is the makeup of the offensive line. Look down near the goal line at the Puskar Center end of the field on the press box side of the stadium. Is it Ryan Stanchek at tackle and Greg Isdaner at guard? Or is it Stanchek at guard and Damien Crissey at tackle? This will reveal the likely starters at each spot, but it might not tell the whole story. Keep an eye on the offensive line each time WVU starts a new series. There are likely to be some switches as offensive line coach Rick Trickett continues to search for the best possible five to put on the field. John Bradshaw and Mike Dent are the other two reserves likely to see action.
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During one of our Premium Subscriber chats (one of the many features of being a member of BlueGoldNews.com), we had an interesting back and forth on the subject of emotion. Conventional wisdom says, and many coaches echo, that being "really fired up" lasts for only the first few minutes of the game. I'd beg to disagree.
While that may be true in some cases, I've seen emotion carry a team throughout a contest. Villanova vs. Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA basketball championship comes to mind. So does WVU's football win over Miami in 1993. While the demeanor displayed by the victors in those games wasn't of the pack of wild dogs stripe, it certainly played a part. West Virginia outhit, outhustled and outworked Miami in that 1993 contest, and at least a good portion of it was emotion based. The Canes were more talented – WVU was more jacked up.
So, it won't hurt to give the Herd an emotion check, say, midway through the second quarter. Of course, the score of the game could have a strong effect their emotions, but it will be interesting to see if they can maintain the fever pitch which grips their fan base very time they play the state's flagship University.
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It will also be interesting to see how Marshall attacks West Virginia's pass defense. WVU's corners, while having little starting experience, played a great deal last year. Antonio Lewis would have been a starter for much of the year had he not been dinged up. So it's not as if the Mountaineer secondary is composed of babes in the woods.
WVU's pass defense is designed to stop the big play, keep receivers in front of them, and make crisp tackles to limit gains. With such a strategy, of course, comes some completed passes and yardage gains for the opposing team. However, the underlying philosophy is that not many NCAA quarterbacks can complete the six or seven passes in a row necessary to sustain a drive without making at least one mistake that kills it. And even if he does succeed, he will have to do it at least 4-5 times to score enough points to give his team a chance against WVU's high-powered offense. Herd QB Bernie Morris, like White, has reported improved his passing during the offseason. Will it be enough to reach this level of efficiency? Over the past couple of years, only Brian Brohm and Marcus Vick have been good enough often enough to make the strategy untenable.