West Virginia pounded Mississippi State into dog food with its outside zone running plays – at one point running it on five out of six snaps. Syracuse, having viewed the film, will likely counter with an extra safety, but much of the battle will be settled at the linebacker level.
On a very simple level, WVU's outside zone sees pairs of offensive linemen double team a defensive lineman, and then make a read that results in one blocker sliding off to block a linebacker. When that happens successfully (and it does a great deal of the time), running back Steve Slaton is presented with a gap which he can cut into for good yardage. Of course, there's much more to it than that, but one of the keys is the linebacking play. If Cain and Mackey (with help from the defensive linemen in front of them) can avoid WVU's mobile blockers, they can jam up the gaps and keep Slaton from making his reads and getting upfield. That, of course, is a big if, as the Orange gave up 221 yards to Pitt's LaRod Stephens-Howling last week.
The big key for success on West Virginia's side is the synchronized play of the offensive linemen. If their steps are correct, and they make the correct reads and block the correct opponent, it's a pretty safe bet that the Mountaineer ground game will have another big day.
A number of articles are looking at this matchup this week from the human interest angle. West Virginia passed on Shadle, a hometown boy form Morgantown, to offer McAfee, Scout.com's number one rated placekicker as a senior. But while some have already made the decision that Shadle is a better kicker (based on more field goals made this year), that decision leaves out one important part of the game.
That area, of course, is kickoffs, which is probably about as glamorous as the center-quarterback exchange. But what casual observers (which includes most media members) fail to realize is that kickoffs are a big part of the game.
At best, it's still too early to tell which kicker will turn out to be the most successful in college. But it's not all about field goals and extra points. Kickers can contribute in other ways as well (witness McAfee's rundown of MSU's Derek Pegues on a kick return last week). When comparing their effectiveness, be sure to include all facets of the game.
WVU bandit Ridwan Malik vs. Syracuse short passing game
Malik, who played respectably in his first start of the season against Mississippi State, will be counted on to advance his game another step or two against the Orange. West Virginia's vulnerability against short passes and crossing routes has been well-documented, and Malik must help close some of those holes if the Mountaineers are to defeat teams with more sophisticated aerial attacks.
That's not to jump on the bandwagon moaning about WVU's pass defense. West Virginia, like Malik, has played acceptably, if not outstandingly, against the pass. However, WVU can do a better job against some of those throws and patterns, and Malik, who can be counted on to get to the right spot, is hopefully the player to do so.
Syracuse has been throwing more short routes this year to take better advantage of QB Perry Patterson's skills, and thus the Orange can be expected to throw a number of underneath and crossing routes against the still-learning WVU pass defense. West Virginia has been out of position on a number of pass plays this season, and as a result receivers have been open too much for defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel's liking. If Malik can help eliminate those mistakes, the Mountaineers will be prepared for early November passing onslaught – and should defeat Saturday's visitors as well.
THINGS TO WATCH
Does Syracuse have an offensive identity? It's hard to tell from watching their first few games. Under Paul Pasqualoni, the Orange ran a few different plays from more sets than Lindsay Lohan has dress sizes, but that was their M.O. Under Greg Robinson, the Cuse has dabbled with a West Coast attack, but that went by the wayside when the Major Applewhite as offensive coordinator experiment went awry.
In order to become proficient offensively, a team needs to establish an identity – something that it does consistently and relies upon. With West Virginia, of course, it's the power spread. For Ohio State, it's defense. For Cuse? Not sure.
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There aren't many times that emotion and game readiness are something to pay attention to, but this week's game could be one of the exception. After mustering some wins and clawing its way back to respectability, Syracuse was no doubt very despondent after losing to Pitt last week. The Orange simply couldn't must much offense, managing just a "so-what" touchdown pass late in the game. This, despite the fact that SU was certainly in the contest for most of the afternoon.
West Virginia has excelled at scoring early and jumping on top of other teams in 2006. Should the Mountaineers put up two or three touchdowns early on, the visitors might just pack it in. Also, remember that the Orange didn't face Slaton, Patrick White or Owen Schmitt last year either. If WVU can pile it on in the early going, it will be very difficult for Syracuse to fight back. It will definitely be worth your time to watch for hanging heads or other telling body language on the Cuse sideline.
On the other hand, West Virginia hasn't excelled at stepping on the necks of any opponents this year, so this certainly isn't a foregone conclusion. That's a talent that the Mountaineers need to develop. Otherwise, it might find itself, at some point this year, on the other end of the scenario that played out in last year's Louisville game.
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West Virginia's tackling, while not bad, still has approached the level of the last two years. Part of that can be attributed to the loss of such great tacklers as Mike Lorello and Anthony Mims. However, there have been several instances this year where Mountaineer defenders haven't shown good technique, with the result being more yards for opposing ball carriers.
It hasn't been a problem where WVU has been going for the big hit and missing. Rather, it seems as if there's a lot of grabbing and holding on, rather than the solid fundamentals of staying low, firing out from the hips and hitting with a shoulder while wrapping up. It's not epidemic either – but just a few missed opportunities a game can make the difference between a three-and-out and a sustained drive.
Watch how West Virginia's defense tackles this week. Are the fundamentals there? Are the linebackers and defensive backs firing through opponents? Or is there more clutching and falling than hitting? WVU must carry its physical style of play all the way through its tackles in order to be an outstanding defense, and get more of those desired three-down series.