Big Play Busters

Connecticut is a prototypical offense: run first, and throw play action passes when needed. That translates into one key for West Virginia's eight-man coverage unit.

The No. 5 Mountaineers (6-0, 1-0 Big East) quite simply can't get caught looking in the backfield on the play action. The Huskies (3-3, 0-1) rank ninth in the nation in rushing with 209.2 yards per game. West Virginia, the top ranked rush attack at 328.3 yards per clip, allows just 88.3 per game defensively, or a paltry 2.9 per attempt. Still, UConn will look to establish itself on the ground, then strike through the air for bigger plays.

The key to stopping the potential aerial assault, aside from the usual execution and tackling, is to minimizing missed assignments. That is, to have individual players concentrate on their own responsibility, and not worry about another aspect of the defense. According to defensive back Vaughn Rivers, of late the Mountaineers have been so focused on stuffing the run – something in which they rank 18th in the nation – that the defensive backfield has often crept up, trying to slow ball carriers. That has allowed balls to be thrown over their head for big plays.

"It's just having discipline with your eyes as a DB, keeping your eyes off the backfield and taking care of your assignment," Rivers said. "That is something both (defensive coordinator Jeff) Casteel and (secondary coach Tony) Gibson have been harping on us about. We have passed run defenders before (coming up in support) and I think that kind of caught us a couple times. We came up and they got us on pump fakes and keeping our eyes on the backfield."

West Virginia eliminated much of that in the second half of its last game and held Syracuse to just three points, that off of a turnover deep in WVU's own end, and 81 net rushing yards on 35 run plays (2.3 ypc) total and a whopping 38 yards on 23 second half snaps. Part of that is certainly execution, part of it halftime adjustments and part of it forcing Syracuse into a one-dimensional style via the WVU offense, which scored 21 third quarter points to turn a 17-14 halftime score into a 41-14 lead.

"We were not playing as physical as we needed to in the first half," safety Eric Wicks said. "We came out and guys played downhill and hit guys in the mouth, and we did it smartly, not rushing up to stop the running backs. We did what we were supposed to do."

Connecticut will mainly utilize tailbacks Terry Caulley and Lou Allen. Caulley, a senior, averages 98 yards per game, good for third in the Big East and 19th in the nation. The 5-7, 193-pounder had 135 yards on 13 carries in UConn's 21-7 win over Army last week – though 98 of that came on one play, the second longest scoring run in school history – and ran for a season-best 152 yards in the 14-7 victory over Indiana. The 2001 Maryland prep player of the year enters with a school-record 13 consecutive 100-plus yard games.

Allen, more of a bruising style runner, provides a solid changeup at 6-1 and 234 pounds. He has carried 48 times for 222 yards without losing one on any play. With Allen's stoutness and Caulley's ability to hide behind the line, then burst through with 10.56 speed in the 100 meters, West Virginia's backfield, or even its linebackers, might be tempted to press to slow the run. It is then that Huskies' quarterback Matt Bronislawski will look for fellow senior Brandon Young, the lone wideout in the top three in receptions for UConn; two of the top three pass catchers are tailbacks in Caulley and team-leader Larry Taylor, with 19 catches.

"You have to be disciplined, but you have to be disciplined in everything, regardless if they are going to play action or not," linebacker Jay Henry said. "They will play action. I think our guys are covering down a lot better in the secondary when the blitz comes, and that has helped with pressure and getting to the quarterback."

Which will be a key in preventing any long passing gains, and getting off the field on third down, which West Virginia, the 10th ranked scoring defense in the nation at 13 points per game, did exceptionally well in the second half against the Orange after allowing SU to convert its first four third downs, none of which were shorter than seven yards. Connecticut is dead last in the Big East in conversion percentage, at 27 of 88 for 30.7 percent. Syracuse ranks second to last.

"Guys just have to trust other guys behind them that they will be there," West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Our defensive guys have to go make plays, go be aggressive and know that other players will be there to help."

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