WVU game plan vs. Louisville game plan
Both head coaches in the game, West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez and Louisville's Bobby Petrino, are undoubtedly holding some wrinkles and new looks in their hands as they prepare for Thursday night's showdown. However, it's more likely that the winner will be the team that can execute its bread and butter offensive plays most effectively.
Certainly, a trick play that results in a touchdown could be the deciding difference on the scoreboard. So to, could "tendency-breakers" – plays that are run out of different formations or different situations than have been previously shown. Those types of tactics can certainly catch defenses off guard, and can result in big gains or scores.
However, the opportunities to spring such surprises make up just a small percentage of the plays in a game. More important is how each team executes those plays that it has built its 7-0 record on. For West Virginia, it's the outside zone and read option, and all of the derivatives that flow from it. For Louisville, it's the mid-range passing game, and running plays that feed off the success of that aerial attack. The team, which is able to run those plays the best, and thus impose its will on its opponent, will head out of the stadium with an 8-0 record.
WVU midrange pass defense vs. Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm
While Louisville can be expected to take a few deep shots with its tall receivers against West Virginia's short corners, one of the critical matchups will be the play of WVU's linebackers, spurs and bandits against Brohm.
West Virginia will respond by mixing its coverages – expect to see the Mountaineers in several combinations, including full zone as well as man-to-man underneath with deep zone over the top. Whatever sets WVU displays, however, staying close to receivers and tackling them after the catch will be a crucial factor in the game. If Cardinal receivers catch the ball in full stride running across the middle, they will be very difficult to catch and bring down – thus, West Virginia must keep its underneath defenders clean and in the correct positions in order to minimize yards after the catch.
There's no doubt that Brohm will complete a number of passes for a lot of yards. However, West Virginia can still win the game if it can keep the Cards from recording big plays, either via long completions or short passes with big runs following. The pressure will be on the Mountaineer backers, spurs and bandits to bet into their correct drops and make crisp tackles on the first attempt.
WVU composure vs. Louisville atmosphere
Yes, we're aware that players often say they aren't fazed by crowd noise once the game starts. In many instances, that's believable. However, at times, the crowd and atmosphere can certainly have an effect on the game, and this Thursday night's contest could be one of those times.
Think back to the 1993 Miami-WVU game or the 1984 Boston College – WVU game. If you think the crowd and environment had an effect on those contests, then either a) you weren't there, or b) you were too altered to notice.
That's not to say that this Thursday's game will be in the same category – but the potential is there. Louisville is already calling this the biggest football game in the State's history. The crowd will undoubtedly be jacked to a fever pitch, well-fueled by a day's tailgating. All that latent energy and emotion will certainly be released early in the game. And if the Cards get off to a good early start, it could build to avalanche proportions.
Fortunately for Mountaineer fans, WVU doesn't appear to be the sort of team that is fazed by these sorts of situations. A calm and measured response to hostile crowds and adversity on the field have been the hallmarks of this squad over the past calendar year, so there's no reason to think it will fall to pieces when the Cardinal fans roar or the team scores some points. Of course, this is likely to be the most intense atmosphere of the sort that West Virginia has faced since the Sugar Bowl, but the Mountaineers handled that situation well. Still, it should be very interesting to see how the emotions and performances of the players on the field are affected by the fans and hoopla surrounding the game.
THINGS TO WATCH
While many will focus on Louisville's passing game against West Virginia's secondary, the key item to watch when the Mountaineer defense is on the field is the front six (or eight, depending on the alignment and activity of the spur and bandit). For WVU to win the game, it doesn't necessarily have to shut down the Cardinals' passing game, but it surely has to achieve the upper hand when Louisville attempts to run the ball.
One of the tenets of WVU's defensive philosophy is to make the opponent one-dimensional. In most cases, that means shutting down the run – and this week, it will be more important than ever. Quarterback Brian Brohm is going to gain some yards throwing the ball, as he and his receiving corps are simply too good to shut down. The Cardinal running game, minus supersized back Michael Bush, is very talented as well, but it's against those players that the Mountaineers will have their best chance to take part of the UL offense out of the mix.
If West Virginia can hold the Cards to 100 yards rushing or less, then the Mountaineers will have a good chance of returning home from Derbytown with a win. That's easier said than done, of course, as Louisville backs such as George Stripling are blessed with great speed and elusiveness. Watch West Virginia's spur and bandit early on to see how they play the Cardinals in running situations. Also keep an eye on WVU's tackling, which while still good, has slipped a notch since last year. The defense can't afford to give up additional yards due to shoddy stoppage attempts.
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What will the Cardinals do in their attempt to slow WVU's rushing attack? Will they adopt some of the tactics used by Connecticut and East Carolina, with safeties lined up wide and cornerbacks angling aggressively inside at the first hint of a run? Wholesale changes to any system can be difficult to install and teach in ten days, so it's no sure bet that the Cards can play copycat, and do so effectively, in that amount of time.
However, Louisville has also had a year to come up with ideas on tweaking its defense in order to slow WVU's sophomore sensations. In last year's 46-44 loss, the Cardinals were taken totally by surprise by Patrick White, who didn't enter the game for keeps until fewer than ten minutes remained in regulation. White's first down scamper on fourth and ten, as well as Slaton's bursts, were at least partially helped by the fact that the Cards hadn't gameplanned for those types of plays – or, perhaps, those plays run at a higher level of speed.
So, those who say WVU should win because White and Slaton will play the entire game this year are overlooking the loss of that surprise factor, which might have been one of the biggest reasons for West Virginia's win. The chess match between UL's defensive staff and WVU's offensive coaches is just beginning, and the success of UL's moves will be key in determining the outcome of this year's contest.
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Both defenses in the game have put up very good statistics. Both defenses are perceived, however, to be the weak links on their respective teams. In this case, unlike polls and opinions, perception means nothing. The defense that can make the most plays will likely spur its team to victory.
Stopping either offense is probably out of the question. Both the Mountaineers and Cardinals have too much talent on that side of the ball to be held in check all night. However, if a defense can force an occasional three and out, come up with a turnover or score a touchdown, it will give its team big emotional and psychological lifts. Just a couple of defensive "wins" could well be the difference.