East Carolina finally woke up and realized it has a weapon in Allison. The talented wideout caught nine passes for 124 yards and the game-clinching touchdown in the Pirates' comeback win over Memphis. Coming into the game, Allison had caught just six passes, and was blanked in the previous week's contest against UAB. For East Carolina to spring the upset, Allison will have to have another monster day, which he is certainly capable of. He had ten receptions for 123 yards and a score against the Mountaineers in Morgantown last year.
Allison is going to catch some passes in this game. WVU's cornerbacks aren't built to be "shutdown" guys – they don't have the height to keep tall, lanky opponents away from the ball all the time. The key for WVU's defenders lies in crisp tackling and route recognition – not letting Allison get downfield for big plays. To be sure, the ECU receiver will be trying to do just that, and in more ways than one. Obviously, look for the Pirates to throw a couple of deep balls his way. However, they can also be expected to throw some bubble screens and short passes to try to put him in one-on-one battles with a smaller defender – a matchup that the ECU coaches hope he can exploit more than once for big gains.
The Pirates have struggled to stop the run at times in 2006, and they figure to be tested even more strenuously by the nation's number one rushing attack. One of the keys to slowing West Virginia's rampaging runners will be their young defensive ends, which must play strongly when WVU runs its signature stretch running plays.
WVU's zone blocking scheme is a fascinating substructure to the game that's rarely noticed or appreciated. If you can tear your eyes away from the ball, watch the choreographed movement of WVU's front line on these types of plays. When done correctly, it's as beautiful as a 40-yard Steve Slaton touchdown run – and usually the key item that allowed it to happen at all.
The Pirates had big problems against Navy's misdirection running game, so look for WVU to run similar looks against the ECU defense. While West Virginia's formations aren't the same as those of the Middies, the action of the plays will be the same – influence the defense one way, then use the cutback running skills of Patrick White and Steve Slaton in the opposite direction.
It's out of the frying pan and into the fire for Ingram. Last week, in his first start as a Mountaineer, the slender end (relatively speaking) battled Maryland's big tackles. This week, he will go up against a foe that's not only big, but also big and good. Graham, a candidate for all-conference honors, will be a tougher test for the callow Mountaineer defender.
For Ingram to be successful, he will have to use quickness and superior technique to avoid getting swallowed up by Graham, who outweighs the Mountaineer redshirt freshman by 60 pounds. If Graham gets his hands on Ingram, and is able to lock him up in close quarters, the battle will go to the Pirate, as Ingram doesn't yet have the strength necessary to battle foes in such situations.
With WVU's defensive line play being average at best to this point in the season, this will be a good battle to watch. Ingram was able to get into Maryland's backfield and put pressure on the quarterback on a handful of occasions last week, and that's something WVU obviously needs more of. However, the Mountaineers are also looking to get more tackles behind the line on rushing plays as well. West Virginia's tackles for loss have totaled just 39 yards this year, which shows a lack of consistent penetration through foes' offensive fronts. And although the finger can't be pointed exclusively at the defensive line (Mike Lorello, for example, had seven stops for 34 yards in losses a year ago), the big boys up front have to be able to make a play on their own every once in a while. And although Ingram isn't likely to defeat a double team on his own just yet, he is being counted on to bring a playmaking edge to the trenches.
THINGS TO WATCH
Right-thinking coaches should have realized by now that they aren't going to beat West Virginia by dinking short passes in front of the Mountaineer defense. WVU is going to score points, and foes aren't going to be able to match them score for score by throwing a bunch of seven-yard outs and five-yard square ins. (That strategy may, of course, cause a certain segment of the Mountaineer fan base to feel like their heads are going to explode, but that's only because they don't understand WVU's defensive philosophy.)
Skip Holtz appears to be an intelligent coach, even if his father still doesn't know the name of the team he played in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl. It shouldn't be a surprise to see ECU go deep early and often. Allison will be a likely target, but also watch for ECU to use him as a decoy, and try to get free safety Quinton Andrews to bite on a move that would clear out the deep middle of the field for a teammate.
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We still haven't seen WVU be tested past the first few minutes of a game this year. The Mountaineers toyed with Marshall, rested its starters against Eastern Washington and sprinted away from Maryland early.
One good sign that was seen, although not exactly under the most trying of circumstances, was the Mountaineers' 96-yard touchdown drive against Maryland. After the Terps had cut WVU's lead to 38-17, the Mountaineers responded with the monster drive to remove any faint hopes of a Maryland comeback.
At some point this season, WVU will face some adversity – an early deficit, two or three consecutive non-scoring drives, or back-to-back turnovers. It will be quite interesting to see how that situation affects the team, if at all. To be honest, I don't expect it will faze the Mountaineers one bit. But until it happens, I'm still anxiously awaiting it to see how it all turns out. And this might be a running item in "Things to Watch" until it happens.
Of course, it would be nice to not have that happen at all this year.
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Although it's almost cliché to say it, turnovers will likely be a key in this game. What brings this phase of the game above the level of the common refrain and under our microscope, however, are a couple of factors.
First, West Virginia has, over the past two-plus seasons, made a living off its turnover margin. In its last ten games, WVU's turnover ratio is an incredible +23. The Mountaineers' Gator Bowl appearance following the 2004 season, as well as last year's Sugar Bowl win, were built largely on a big plus margin in turnover ratio. This year the story has been pretty much the same, although the credit for WVU's +6 margin to date is more due to the offense's ball protection (only one turnover thus far) than anything. Head coach Rich Rodriguez has stressed that the defense needs to cause more turnovers – something that helps the defense get off the field more quickly, and also sets the offense up for more points. Under Coach Rod, WVU has yet to field a smothering, dominating defensive squad, but what liabilities the defense has shown have been compensated for by scads of takeaways.
On the other side of the field, East Carolina comes into the game tied for first in the nation in fumble recoveries, having jumped on six bobbles in its first three games. Add in five interceptions (all coming against Memphis last week), and the Pirates have 11 takeaways in all. On the down side, ECU has turned the ball over seven times, but that's still good for a +1.33 turnover advantage per game.
When matching two teams that are good at taking the ball away, the turnover battle could come down to which team does more with the takeaways it gets. West Virginia has been very good at turning its opponents mistakes into scores this year, while the Pirates have been a team of streaks in that regard. ECU failed to score on any of its first seven possessions following turnovers, this year, but flipped the switch against Memphis, scoring after each of the Tigers' final four giveaways. It's probably a safe bet (not that we're advocating that sort of activity) to say that the team that scores the most off its takeaway will likely be the winner.