WVU tackling vs. Rutgers running back Ray Rice
One of the less-noticed problems of West Virginia's defense this year has been tackling. While it hasn't been awful, it's also certainly not up to the standards of the last couple of teams' and the result is that the Mountaineers are giving up more second chance yards than they did a year ago.
It's true, of course, that WVU is still outstanding defensively against the run, yielding just 79.9 yards per game, but that number would be even lower if the tackling was better. The same is true of the pass defense, perhaps even more so. Although West Virginia has struggled to cover receivers, it has also failed to convert tackling opportunities at an alarming rate after they catch the ball.
However, the main concern this week will be tackling Rice, who blends speed and power in his game in equal measure. He excels at shrugging off tackles and finishing strongly (much as West Virginia's Steve Slaton does), and if the home team doesn't tackle crisply, will be likely to put up another big rushing total. Rice powers the Rutgers offense for the most part – the short passing game lives off play fakes to him – so the Mountaineers have to keep him from getting untracked. He is going to get some yards, but the key will be to limit him in his yards after contact.
WVU center Dan Mozes vs. Rutgers defensive tackle Ramel Meekins
The battle between two of the best in the conference at their respective positions will go unnoticed by many, but will have a great impact on the game's outcome.
Rutgers will be looking to duplicate that USF performance, and will draw on its own experience against Louisville as it looks to contain Patrick White. The Scarlet Knights did a great job of staying in rush lanes and collapsing the pocket in that contest, and will certainly try to execute the same tactics against the Mountaineers.
Mozes must anchor the West Virginia interior line and keep the pocket from collapsing on White, who probably won't be at 100% for the game. That will likely keep White from breaking off as many lightning fast moves as he normally does – a side of effect of which will be that he could be a bit more of a pocket passer. If Rutgers is able to pressure White and keep him there, it will certainly be a long evening for the Mountaineer offense.
WVU pass defense vs. Rutgers tight end Clark Harris
If Meekins liked what he saw on film from the WVU-USF game, imagine what Clark is thinking as he views footage of West Virginia's soft pass defense. The bruising senior is sixth on Rutgers' all-time list in both receptions (133) and yards (1,873), and should be a prime target in the Scarlet Knights' passing attack, which has concentrated on short and medium range passes for much of the season.
Clark is a huge target who has caught the ball well all season, so it's not realistic to think WVU is going to shut him down. However, what the Mountaineers have to do is be close enough to him to tackle him right after the catch, and not let him build up his momentum running downfield. If that happens, the tackling issue discussed earlier will certainly come into play again.
On its underneath pass coverage, West Virginia's linebackers must drop deeply enough to take away the intermediate seam and crossing routes that Clark is likely to run. It also has to close aggressively on the throw, and not wait until the ball has been caught and the receiver running free before making a tackle attempt. That sounds simple, but it's something the coaches have been unable to get the defense to do for an extended stretch this year.
THINGS TO WATCH
While head coach Rich Rodriguez didn't fault the effort in last week's loss to Florida, a number of Mountaineer fans didn't agree. Rodriguez has started off just about every day after press conference this year with, ‘I thought the effort was good,' so it could be he is just giving coach speak in that regard.
However, last week is last week. This week's game will certainly be scrutinized on the effort front, as many observers didn't see evidence of that against the Bulls. Discerning it, however, will be a difficult task at best, because this team isn't a rah-rah, jump up and down sort of squad. Even the chest bumps, encouraged by Rodriguez as a way of having fun and showing emotion, seemed a bit forced. Therefore, figuring out if the team is "focused" and "has their heads in the game" will probably involve a good bit of guesswork.
There certainly isn't any doubt, however, that last weeks loss, coupled with the coaching situation, could prove to be a tough mental and emotional hurdle for West Virginia to overcome. Throw in senior day (a positive) and the night start (positive or negative), and there could be a welter of conflicting emotions present on the WVU team.
On a radio interview earlier this week, I was asked if I considered West Virginia's season a success or a disappointment. I opted for a choice somewhere in the middle, leaning toward the success side of the ledger. Of course, my opinion doesn't matter. The team's does. And the way the players view their accomplishments to date could have a lot more effect on their performance Saturday night.
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Are opponents stealing WVU's signs? The possibility does exist. Fortunately, evidence for this item might be a bit easier to obtain. When West Virginia has the ball, look for players or coaches on the Rutgers sideline that are watching the signals, and then relaying decoded information onto the field. Of course, there's no guarantee that the data been sent is correct. Foes could be wildly off base, put their defense in the wrong position, and give up big plays. Or they might watch the wrong person on the West Virginia sideline. But it's certainly something to keep an eye on.
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With a close contest expected (at least in this corner), the game could come down to the team that can best execute its running game in the final quarter. Both primary running backs have been very good in the last 15 minutes this year.
Slaton has just 45 carries in the fourth this year, but has produced 314 yards (6.9 yards per carry) and two scores. On the other side of the field, Rice has been even better, although he has had the benefit of more close games, and thus more carries, late in contests. He has rushed for 407 yards on 67 carries in the fourth quarter this season, including three touchdowns. That's good for an average of 6.1 yards per carry.