Change Of Plans

A change in schemes because of a change at quarterback and an emphasis on not overfocusing on Calvin Johnson heads West Virginia's defensive preparations going into the final 10 days before the Gator Bowl.

The No. 13 Mountaineers (10-2) had originally schemed to defend starting signalcaller Reggie Ball and the Tech passing offense with a controlled rush that kept the mobile signalcaller in the pocket. It was known that Ball did not like to sit back and be forced to read the defense and find holes in the zone. He was a runner, rather, and he'd instead like to turn the game into a schoolyard style by getting outside and putting pressure on defenses to choose to run with the receivers or come up and stop the shifty quarterback. With his academic ineligibility, however, the plan changes significantly. Ball might not run as well as WVU counterpart Patrick White, but his escapability and finesse for tossing long scores off the scramble was far more dangerous than simply letting the non-pure passer sit in the pocket and try to pick the 3-3-5 odd stack apart.

The original idea was to force the senior to stay in one area. Some blitzes up the middle were forgone for outside heat and making Ball step into the line and throw. That kept him off the perimeter, and eliminated the tuck-and-run that slays so many defenses that have played the pass well in a given snap. Now, with backup quarterback Taylor Bennett the starter, the game plan switches to rushes from all angles. The Mountaineers will likely try to confuse the 6-3, 215-pound redshirt sophomore. Look for multiple changes in coverage, the dropping off of possible rushers at the last moment before the snap, and an assortment of linebackers, corners and safeties – hybrid and otherwise – coming from angles and through holes created via stunts and loops by the down linemen. The middle blitzes are again in the game plan – and never totally disappeared – and mere pocket pressure is dropped for attempting to get a total collapse any way possible. In short, it's a more sick'em style that could make for the adjust-on-the-run playground ball.

There are changes on the other side as well. For Tech, the quarterback switch means it has a better pure passer and more height for seeing plays downfield. The Yellow Jackets have essentially a rookie under center, however, one that will face a very fast defense, even if it lacks in phases of the pass game. Bennett for Ball also means the blocking stress on the guard and tackle changes a bit, because the blind side is the opposite. Bennett, a left-hander, has completed 16 of 29 passes (55.2 percent) for 197 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He has played only sparingly, when games have been decided, but his completion percentage is nearly 10 points better than Ball's, and his passer rating is 128.1 as compared to 112.7, though that is skewed because of the largely late-game competition.

Bennett made his only career start against another Big East team, Connecticut, in 2005 when Ball became ill before the game. One his first collegiate snap, he threw a touchdown to Johnson, and is believed to be one of only two quarterbacks in NCAA Division I history to throw a touchdown on his first collegiate attempt. He went 11 of 30 against the Huskies for 142 yards, with the lone score and no interceptions. Should Bennett be injured, the Yellow Jackets would insert sophomore Kyle Manley, who is also the holder on special teams. The most promising prospect – and one that could well jump Manley at some point, is redshirt freshman Jonathan Garner, from Daytona Beach. He is a clone of Bennett, being left-handed and of the same tall, lanky mold at 6-4, 210 pounds. He has never taken a game snap for Tech, but was rated a Top 20 quarterback coming out of high school.

Besides that change, West Virginia, as was the original idea behind this piece before the loss of Ball, is trying not to focus too much on Calvin Johnson. Tech tailback Tashard Choice (1,204 yards and 10 TDs on 249 carries) and fellow wideout James Johnson are major threats. One can't eliminate Calvin Johnson, who has caught 59 passes for 899 yards (15.2 yards per reception) and 13 touchdowns, but careful schemes and execution can slow the future NFL receiver while also accounting for others. James Johnson tallied 36 grabs for 528 yards and six scores.

"The numbers don't lie," WVU cornerback Vaughn Rivers said. "The other receiver has caught just as many balls as Johnson has almost. We have done a good job of not putting too much focus on Johnson. The other receiver, (name) does some other things as well."

Tech appears to have balance as well. It has averaged 25.7 points per game 1,971 rushing yards and 1,920 passing yards. It has rushed 456 times, though, to 311 passes, and utilized long throws for quick scores. If they don't complete that, however, the long, grind-it-out drives have been few. The 5.1 yards per play is a solid number, and Tech has turned it over 18 times on offense. WVU will play its normal zone defense and try to cover the long ball, while stuffing the run. The latter is doable. The former might be the biggest challenge to date, especially because Bennett will be more patient than Ball, especially in finding Johnson and not forcing passes.

"We have played other teams that were more balanced, though, like Louisville and South Florida," Rivers said. "Their attack is going to be that deep ball with Johnson. You gotta be physical. Johnson has that mindset, because he is already bigger, that he will be able to play physically with you. We have to be physical, and we have some different defense for them. Johnson is a little more of a go-getter. He goes and attacks the ball more, and has made Ball look better than what he is, really."

He'll do the same with Bennett, who will likely have the offense cut down to a manageable level with easier throws than what Tech asked of Ball. And unlike the senior, if he cannot quick-hit the secondary with long passes, Bennett will settle for what the Mountaineer defense gives, which could make him more dangerous than the pressing Ball. West Virginia must attack the pocket and make the second-time starter beat them throwing on the run – a far different game plan than what was devised in the last two weeks, making practices even more imperative over the final days of preparation.

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