What's lost in this, or concealed in the overwhelming urge to check out the flashy offenses, are the largest collective yardage changes in football: Special teams plays. Little wonder it has yet to be discussed: It's called hidden yardage for a reason, and it is there that West Virginia has arguably its biggest advantage of any purely numbers game. The Mountaineers (7-0, 2-0 Big East) are in the top half of the conference in every statistical special teams category, and they lead in half of them, including net punting, point after kicking and kickoff coverage. U of L? They rank dead last in the latter, allowing 22.7 yards per return to WVU's 17.3, and are in the bottom half of the league in net punting and kickoff returns.
"It's colossal," said special teams coordinator Bill Stewart of the units' importance. "Sure, our offense wants to outdo their offense, our defense wants to outdo their defense. But in this game right now, if our special teams don't outdo their special teams, it could be a big loss for the Mountaineers."
A big gain seems more likely versus the ‘Ville. Only Pittsburgh ranks ahead of West Virginia in the Big East on kickoff returns, averaging an even 29 yards per bring back to WVU's 25.4 (NCAA 15th). The Mountaineers have one score off it this season, wideout Darius Reynaud's 96-yard return against Maryland in a 45-24 win. And Reynaud averages a whopping 30.8 yards per runback, good for ninth in the nation. The other main return threats, cornerbacks Antonio Lewis (24.5) and Vaughn Rivers (23.4), would rank in the top 50 if they had the minimum required 1.2 kickoff returns per game.
"Last year when they tried to turn the tide, after we kicked off (tied at 24-24), we hit that guy at the 12-yard line. Bam! And that was over," Stewart said.
Stuck deep in its own end, Louisville's high-octane offense kneeled the ball to go into overtime, where West Virginia prevailed in three sessions, 46-44.
"We are leading the league in so many categories and we are nationally ranked in so many categories, but that does not mean a hill of beans against Louisville on a Thursday night," Stewart said. "We have to take the hidden yardage to the highest level we have this season. We have to have a Maryland kickoff return, a Mississippi State punt return. We have to play well. Does that mean we have to play chocker-chain tight? No. But we have to attack our responsibilities. That is the biggest thing I tell these guys: Don't just do your job. Attack your job."
West Virginia has in other areas besides kickoff. It's 40.2-yard net on punts leads the Big East; WVU is the lone league team to average more than 40 net yards and one of just six in the NCAA to do so. It has a mean of 40.9 yards per punt, meaning teams are averaging just 0.7 yards a return, or less than two feet. U of L is in the bottom half of the league in net punting, at 35.4 yards (NCAA 77th), and rates last in the Big East – and 99th in the country – at 5.9 yards per bring back. The Mountaineers average 9.6 yards per punt return.
On 18 attempts, Louisville's leading punt returner, junior receiver Patrick Carter, has averaged 5.9 yards. His longest is 18 yards and he has not scored. Rivers, West Virginia's leading punt returner, has a mean of 12.8 yards and a long of 50, that coming against Mississippi State, when he returned a punt for score to put an exclamation on the 42-10 win.
"I feel very good because our guys have accepted the fact that if we do our job on special teams, then West Virginia will have an extra advantage and we'll have a chance in the game," Stewart said. "We have to have that Thursday on everything: Kickoff, kick return, punt, punt return, field goals, everything. Just a play here or there to turn the tide will help our defense. I promise it will.
"We are at 16-17 yards on kickoff return. But we could be at eight or nine if, in just the last 15 yards or so, guys would explode through the guy and do what we are capable of doing. If these guys were not capable, I would say ‘Good job. You're doing what you can do.' But these guys are capable of that. Louisville, come Thursday, we have to be big. We have to play big."
Both Louisville and West Virginia are perfect on point-afters, WVU 37-of-37 and U of L 34-of-34. The lone area where the Cardinals have an advantage is on the field goal unit. Place kicker Art Carmody has hit 11-of-12 attempts (91.7 percent/NCAA 5th in accuracy of players with four-plus kicks), including a long of 51. He is two-for-two on kicks longer than 40 yards and six-for-seven on tries of 30-plus yards, and his 1.57 field goals made per game rates seventh in the nation. West Virginia's Pat McAfee is nine-of-12, eight of those coming on as many tries inside the 40-yard line. From the 40 out, McAfee is just one of four, with the longest being the lone make, a 48-yarder against Connecticut. In fairness, the sophomore had one blocked, and another tipped, so the line breakdowns have been partially to blame.
"He is pretty good. Pretty, pretty good," Stewart said of Carmody. "They do a nice job. That coaching staff at Louisville is as good as it gets and that football team is as good as it gets."
McAfee's field goals-made-per-game does rate highly in the NCAA, at 1.3 for 25th. Both McAfee, a sophomore, and Carmody, a junior, are in the NCAA top 10 in scoring because of the teams' potent offenses. McAfee, 10th, has tallied 64 points to Carmody's 67, good for eighth. Oklahoma's Garrett Hartley is the only other place kicker in the top 10 in scoring, nearly splitting the difference between McAfee and Carmody with 65 points to rank ninth. The three kickers are also predictably the highest ranked NCAA players for points responsible for outside of quarterbacks and running backs, McAfee's 9.14 points per game ranking 64th and Carmody's 9.57 ranking 59th.
"Our guys have taken it on our shoulders to say we have to make this happen on special teams," Stewart said. "We aren't going down there and play tight. I promise we will not go down there and play tight. I'll say this: If we go out there on special teams and attack and do what we are capable of, we may have a chance to make just a play here or there that will turn the football game. We were blessed to do it last year on the (onside) kickoff to get us back in the game and the kickoff when we were back in the ballgame to throttle them down. Are we capable of doing it? Yeah. Will we? That remains to be seen."