Many times, the matchup between quarterbacks and cornerbacks is overrated. The wide receivers, play calls and defensive schemes often have as much to do with how a play turns out as the thrower and defender of the pass. However, in this case, the duel between the callow Mountaineer corners and the senior Panther QB will have a big effect on the outcome of the contest.
West Virginia added more youth to its lineup at corner in the form of Dervil and Allen, and although many fans thought their play was sterling against Cincinnati, it's clear the talented youngsters still have a lot to learn about the nuances of playing corner in Division I. On the job training is often a must for these sorts of lessons, but the pair will be playing against a sophisticated and savvy quarterback in the form of Palko, who has had a banner senior season.
Look for Palko to go after the corners with a variety of tactics, including double move routes, crossing patterns and deep fades. To be successful, Dervil and Allen will have to keep from looking into the backfield on Pitt's play action passes, and make sure tackles when the receivers they are covering catch the ball. Palko and the Pitt passing game is too good to be shut down, as West Virginia knows from last year's contest. However, WVU's young corners can help deliver a win by not getting frustrated or playing outside the scheme against one of the better tacticians in the country.
WVU running game vs. Pitt linebacker H.B. Blades
Blades missed 98% of the Backyard Brawl a year ago, when he was injured early and spent the remainder of the frigid night either on the sidelines or in the locker room. If that happens again, the Panthers will again be almost defenseless against the Mountaineer running attack.
West Virginia would likely have countered with a straight-ahead power attack to neutralize Blades' pursuit skills, but with fullback Owen Schmitt expected to be limited, it hampers the Mountaineers in two regards. First, Schmitt gives WVU a power presence on inside runs of his own. Second, he is the key cog in the isolation plays (the isolation is the lead blocker, the fullback, on the middle linebacker) that provide such an effective counterpoint to the outside runs and read options that are a staple of the Mountaineer offense.
In this matchup, Schmitt's availability, and the number of snaps he takes, could be crucial. Backups Max Anderson and Brad Palmer aren't the devastating blocker or explosive runner that Schmitt is, and if Blades is allowed to run free it could put a crimp in West Virginia's running attack.
WVU linebacker Kevin McLee vs. Pitt offensive line
Boo "turned it loose" against the Bearcat offense last week, so it won't be a surprise to see him get similar free rein against the Panthers. McLee plays at his best when he's getting into the backfield or chasing down ballcarriers with abandon, and those are the positions that he will hopefully, at least for Mountaineer fans, get into on Thursday night.
Pitt's offensive line, a mixed bag in terms of experience and ability, will have to know where McLee is at all times. The Panthers will have to be disciplined in their blitz pickups, and account for the Uniontown, Pa. native at every turn. On the flip side, McLee must get to the proper lanes when he blitzes, and attack potential blockers on their shoulders rather than directly in the middle of their bodies. That will allow him to use his strength and leverage against the offensive linemen, and help him gat a path to the quarterback.
THINGS TO WATCH
More than one Pitt player hinted that a new Panther defensive scheme might be in evidence on Thursday night. While no more details were forthcoming, an educated guess says that Pitt might remove a lineman or two in favor of a linebacker. A "standup" scheme, with only two or three linemen playing with their hands on the ground, might give Pitt the additional quickness it is looking for against Patrick White and Steve Slaton.
Pitt might also employ a spy on White, but unless the defender has the speed of Darrelle Revis or Dorin Dickerson, that might not be the most effective tactic to employ. Be sure to look at the overall picture of the Panther defense on the first couple of series to see if you can pick out the changes in the Pitt system.
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The saying goes that everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it. West Virginia will try to minimize the effects of the crappiest field in Division I and an expected rainstorm by going to longer cleats designed for wet surfaces. There isn't a shoe available, however, that counteracts a sandy morass with a poor root system, or a jersey or shirt that's waterproof, so the end result is likely to be that WVU is affected by the field and the elements.
In many cases, bad weather favors the team that runs the ball, but the opposite is likely to be true in this case. West Virginia depends on cuts, speed and quick reads in its running game – all of which figure to be affected by the rain and surface. Keep a weather eye on West Virginia's footing early on. Are the Mountaineer runners able to move at full speed and make decisive cuts? Or will they be forced to shorten their strides and tiptoe through moves in order to keep their feet under them?
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The Panther running game has gone a bit underanalyzed in the buildup for The Brawl, but it could end up being the key factor in the contest. West Virginia's defensive goal is to make its opponents' one dimensional, and to do that the Mountaineers must keep LaRod Stephens-Howling in check. If Pitt is able to break out for respectable rushing yardages(say, 150 or more), it will have a much better chance of springing the upset on WVU.