WVU defensive line vs. UConn offensive line
Sure, this match up figures heavily in most games, but it's a critical one for this contest. UConn's hyper-young offensive line (three freshmen, one sophomore, one senior) have to give running back Terry Caulley a few cracks to run through, and quarterback Matt Bonislawski a bit of time to throw, otherwise this game could get ugly.
Left guard Matt Applebaum is the sole senior on the line, but even he is a relative babe in the woods, having played just two years in the offensive trenches. He will have to steady the Huskies around him in order to give UConn a chance to execute its game plan – keeping the Mountaineer offense off the field.
West Virginia, on the other hand, will be trying to continue the solid play it showed in the second half against Syracuse. WVU got penetration against the Cuse offensive front, and showed signs of becoming the defense that the coaching staff believes it can be. This would be a prime time to do so, as a certain highly-anticipated game is next on the schedule. Look for UConn to go maximum protection on its passing routes, and perhaps show some of the two tight-end sets used by other West Virginia foes this year.
WVU spur Johnny Holmes and bandit Eric Wicks vs. UConn running back Terry Caulley
While Caulley is an outstanding rusher, it's his pass receiving skills that the Mountaineers may have to be more concerned with this week. He has snared 10 passes for 71 yards and a touchdown through six games, and while those aren't awesome numbers, they do demonstrate his ability to do damage in the passing game.
For their part, Holmes and Wicks (as well as Ridwan Malik, if he is healthy enough to play) must be solid in their technique. They aren't going to keep Caulley or other backs from catching swing passes, but if they keep the receivers contained and tackle well, they can keep this tactic from being anything more than a nuisance for the Mountaineer defense. One other thought – perhaps it's time for Aaron Meckstroth to get a few snaps at this position. The gritty state native played well in the fourth quarter against Syracuse. Could he be a stabilizing force in the spur and bandit rotation?
The diminutive Taylor (5-6, 165 lbs.) is averaging 14.5 yards per punt return in 2006, and has taken one the distance. Each of those yards will be vital for a Huskie team that could struggle to match scores with the high-powered West Virginia offense. Taylor could give his offensive teammates a much shorter field to work with if he can match that average against the Mountaineers.
In Kozlowski, however, WVU has a weapon of its own with which to combat explosive return men. After struggling early in his career with West Virginia's roll punt, Kozlowski has become very efficient at kicking the ball away from opposing returners while giving his teammates in coverage time to get downfield on conventional kicks. WVU is allowing just 1.4 yards per punt return this year, and is third nationally in net punting with a 41.86 yards per punt average. The stats on both sides are impressive, and the team that wins this battle will likely be able to claim victory in the special teams battle overall.
THINGS TO WATCH
Even with its callow offensive line, the Huskies are ninth in the nation in rushing with an average of 209.1 yards per game. Unlike West Virginia, which has been fairly balanced on the ground throughout the season, the Huskies have been up and down. They piled up 418, 257 and 226 yards in three games this year, but have been held as low as 60 yards (South Florida).
With that in mind, it should be interesting to see how UConn's game plan unfolds against the Mountaineers. As noted earlier, clock control will be uppermost on the Huskies' minds, so it figures to see them try to recapture some of the rushing success they had against teams like Rhode Island. Look for UConn to run behind mammoth right tackle Mike Hicks in their efforts to establish a ground attack.
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Teams defend WVU's rushing game in many different ways. UConn's hook will likely be playing the linebackers very close to the offensive line on running downs and situations. While many teams bring safeties up to crowd the box, the Huskies try to achieve the same effect by getting the linebackers in tight. That tactic can cut down on blocking angles for offensive linemen and make the backers hard to get to.
Of course, in doing so, UConn opens itself up to big plays. If the offensive line can wall off the defenders and get to the corner, there can be lots of running room on the perimeter. Navy executed that to devastating effect in its 41-17 thrashing of the Huskies three weeks ago, as it rolled up 464 yards on the ground. Many of those stripes came outside the tackles, as the Midshipmen pinned UConn's linebackers inside before optioning the cornerback.
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On West Virginia's side, it's time to get rid of the penalties. At least the mental brain fart types. WVU has been plagued by these for the past couple of seasons, and they are one of the last remaining blemishes on the quality program that head coach Rich Rodriguez and his staff have built. They have taken a harder line on repeat offenders in recent weeks, pulling them and sitting them out for long stretches of game action. Will that have the desired effect? If another one occurs, will harsher measures ensue? Be sure to watch the coaches, especially Rodriguez, if another silly 15-yarder gets assessed on a Mountaineer – and also note if that player gets back in the game.
There's always the danger, of course, of removing aggressiveness from a player in an effort to curb personal fouls. And that's where the line separating types of penalties has to be drawn. A flag for a play such as Patrick White's downfield block that spilled a step out of bounds isn't a big issue. But unsportsmanlike fouls and continued hits long after the whistle are.