Not So Special

West Virginia was supposed to have the special teams advantage in Thursday night's game against Louisville. Instead, it was the Cardinals who executed in the oh-so-critical play phase to secure the biggest win in their history.

All night long, the Cardinals had WVU fumbling in a darkness much more profound than the blackout effect created with dark clothing worn by the fans and the second half brownout of nearly half of the stadium's lighting. And in the end, several of those plays loomed large in UL's 44-34 win.

The first, and most obvious, was Trent Guy's 40-yard punt return for a touchdown early in the third quarter that gave the home team a two score lead that it maintained for the rest of the game. The play was a mélange of Mountaineer errors that paved the way for Guy's uninhibited romp down the visitors' sideline for the score. Coming on the heels of Malik Jackson's 13-yard fumble recovery and return for a score, Guy's gallop gave Louisville the breathing room it needed to hold off subsequent WVU rally attempts.

On the play, WVU was supposed to kick the ball to the left. However, Scott Kozlowski's 26-yard punt took a low, boring path to the right. That's not to pin the entire blame on the Mountaineer punter, however, as the coverage team failed to react, giving Guy an almost totally clear path to the end zone. He required just one small move to avoid one tackle along with one block to reach paydirt. West Virginia started off the play badly by lining up in an illegal formation, which may have also contributed to the score.

"We were supposed to kick the ball to the right, but that doesn't matter. You still have to make the play," disgusted Mountaineer head coach Rich Rodriguez said afterward. "You can't give a team like Louisville points like that."

The scoring play wasn't WVU's only bad moment on special teams. The Mountaineers' explosive kickoff return team was flummoxed by a UL coverage plan that mixed different kickoff styles with a coverage scheme that pinned WVU against the sideline. West Virginia averaged just 17.6 yards per kickoff return, and that number was saved only by Darius Reynaud's 43-yard return midway through the third quarter. Along the way, West Virginia bobbled and fumbled two return attempts, ran every return to the left straight into the teeth of the Louisville coverage team, and danced and juked on several returns instead of running hard directly for the point of the return scheme. Louisville also kept WVU guessing by hitting two low line drive kickoffs on its first two boots of the game.

Perhaps the most embarrassing moment of the special teams beatdown, however, came on a West Virginia kickoff. After Patrick White scored to cut the Cardinals' lead to 37-27, Louisville put its "hands" team on the field to guard against a possible onside kick. West Virginia elected to kick the ball deep, which should have allowed the Mountaineer linebackers and safeties on the coverage team to overwhelm the receivers and running backs that made up the UL return team. However, that assortment of players blew a huge whole in WVU's coverage team, and were it not for a last ditch tackle by WVU's Darius Reynaud, would have run the kick back for a score. As it was, JaJuan Spilman's 26-yard return set Louisville up for another touchdown drive that ended any faint hopes of a WVU comeback.

The Cardinals dominated West Virginia in all phases of special teams play. Louisville averaged 41 yards per punt to WVU's 29, averaged 21.2 yards per kickoff return to WVU's disappointing 17.6, gained an average of 18 more yards of field position per punt, and, of course, scored the critical touchdown. On a night when the offenses of each team were evenly matched, it was the Cardinal special teams that provided a huge leg up and gave the Louisvillians the inside track to the Big East conference title.


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