The MSU tight end corps has seven receptions for 88 yards this year, and it might not be a surprise to see them with nearly that many catches against WVU. The Bulldogs can be expected to line up three wide receivers to spread out WVU's pass defense, then work the tight end down the seam or across the face of the Mountaineer defense.
While East Carolina did the same thing with an inside slot receiver a week ago, Mississippi State figures to attack that area with their tight ends, who are all mobile and good pass catchers. In averaging more than 12 yards per catch, it's also apparent that the trio can run with the ball after catching it. In those formations, WVU linebackers will have to provide underneath pass defense against the tight ends, as the spur or bandit will, in many instances, be covering the slot receiver.
West Virginia's linebackers can't be expected to shut down the Bulldog tight ends, but they can limit their productivity by forcing them off their routes from the start and tackling crisply when they do make receptions. Those are things that the Mountaineers failed to do against East Carolina, and must improve upon in order to make their pass defense better.
While a good bit of attention is being paid to the face-off between West Virginia's running game and Mississippi State's ground defense, this matchup might be just as interesting.
Liebig is one of the key players in making that happen. While not piling up huge tackle totals, Liebig has done a very good job in controlling opposing centers and eating up blockers to allow his linebacking teammates to run to the ball. He also is very good at making a pile in the middle of the line on interior running plays and forcing backs to move laterally – which usually leads to limited running room.
Blackledge will be trying to move Liebig and handle him one-on-one in the run game, which would free up the guards to block linebackers more quickly. The big junior (6-4, 295 lbs.) has the size to overwhelm some nose tackles, but Liebig has proven adept at using a combination of strength, technique and quickness to get the upper hand on his opponents this year.
Pegues, a sophomore who stands just 5-10, should have West Virginia's taller wide receivers anticipating a favorable matchup. However, passive play in one-on-one situations makes this potential advantage for the Mountaineers less attractive than it should be.
Pegues is part of a pass defense that has been burned deep on several occasions this year. Some of those plays were due to mental errors, but others were the result of bigger, taller receivers using their advantages to outfight Pegues for the ball. While that should also be the case for West Virginia's taller receivers, it hasn't materialized over their careers on a consistent basis.
When WVU gets one-on-one coverage on an outside receiver, a go-route and a high, hanging pass should be the result. However, West Virginia's receivers haven't been able to win many of these battles, mostly because its receivers don't go up for the ball at its highest point. Instead, they tend to wait on the ball with their hands and waist or chest level, which negates their height advantage.
With MSU's shakiness against the deep ball, it will be interesting to see if the Mountaineers go downfield more than they have in the first four games – and if the receiving corps can make plays as a result.
THINGS TO WATCH
A corollary to the matchup between Liebig and Blackledge is the running of MSU quarterback Omarr Conner. The Bulldog quarterback has shown his running ability while playing wide receiver for parts of his career, and is a threat to take off with the ball at any moment.
To combat that, West Virginia must be very disciplined in its pass rush and blitzes. Defenders must stay in their assigned spots, almost as much as a kickoff coverage team does. Liebig, for instance, must be in position to jump into either "A" gap (the spaces between the center and guards) to keep Conner from getting loose in the middle of the field, where he is most dangerous.
In all likelihood, WVU will be controlled in its rush for most of the game, so this isn't the contest to look for the Mountaineers to break out with a bunch of sacks. Given its choice, West Virginia would prefer to have Conner in the pocket throwing the ball than running with it.
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Another key to West Virginia's defense is the play of its spurs and bandits. While each unit of the Mountaineer stop squad has its important roles, WVU depends on these two hybrid positions to make big plays. Whether it's getting tackles behind the line of scrimmage, knocking down passes or delivering big hits, these players must perform, and perform well, for the Mountaineers to be successful on defense.
To date, the results from these spots have been mixed. Eric Wicks has been shuttled between spur and bandit, with Johnny Holmes playing at spur and Charles Pugh at bandit. The moving has appeared to affect Wicks' comfort level a bit, as he has not been as productive as hoped. Likewise, Charles Pugh, who has been tried at several different positions, has not reached a comfort level that allows him to play up to his athletic potential. Holmes, after starting out as a linebacker, is in a similar situation, although he is showing some signs of turning the corner.
The return of Ridwan Malik could help shore up play at these vital positions. Malik can play either spur or bandit, and while not flashy, is a solid veteran who doesn't get caught out of position too much. It will be interesting to see which players get the bulk of the playing time this week, and at which spots.
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Also returning from the injured list is defensive lineman Doug Slavonic, who should be ready to see some snaps against the Bulldogs. Although Slavonic dressed for the East Carolina game, he did not see action, and was still limping appreciably along the sidelines. He has returned to full time practice, however, and should be ready for something like 10-15 plays on Saturday.
The defensive line rotation, like that at spur and bandit, has been in flux for much of the year. Precocious James Ingram has taken a good chunk of Johnny Dingle's time, and starters along the front have varied each game. If your TV is big enough, it should be interesting to track the rotation of the defensive line this week, as assistant coach Bill Kirelawich continues the search for more production up front.