Matchups: West Virginia - Western Michigan

The first game of the season offers a plethora of items to keep an eye on, and this year's West Virginia – Western Michigan opener is certainly no different.

MATCHUPS AND STORYLINES

WVU bandit Eric Wicks vs. WMU quarterback Eric Hiller

Wicks, returning to a much-modified position that he played earlier in his career, will be one of the linchpins in trying to confuse Hiller, who redshirted last year after a very good 2005 campaign.

Those making cursory glances at "returning starters" won't see Hiller listed, but he is anything other than a rookie. He passed for 1,334 yards, 20 scores and just three interceptions on his way to MAC Rookie of the Year honors in 2005, and his 64.9% accuracy rate will test the Mountaineers' revamped pass defense. Wicks, who showed something this preseason that WVU hasn't seen from a safety in a while (the ability to break underneath a route and break up the pass) will be one of Hiller's keys as he tries to decipher where to go with the ball. If he can figure it out, the Broncos could make life tough for the Mountaineer defense. But if Wicks and his mates can confuse Hiller, WVU will be on its way to a big win.

Watch Wicks, and observe how the Mountaineer defensive staff deploys him in different spots, and with different assignments. Of course, figuring those out while the play is going on can be tough, but that's just what Hiller has to do in order for the passing game to enjoy success. Hiller will likely spread the ball out and throw safe passes, much as South Florida did in its upset win over the Mountaineers a year ago.


WVU center Mike Dent vs. WMU nose guard Cody Cielenski

Although this won't be the biggest, fastest or most talented opponent Dent will play against this fall, his play in his first starting assignment is something that many Mountaineer fans should be watching.



Mike Dent
Dent has answered the questions about replacing Dan Mozes a million times – now it is his chance to put all that aside and go play. A very intelligent player who has good quickness and wingspan, Dent will be looking to become the anchor of WVU's retooled offensive front. In Cielenski, he faces a player with limited experience who is also listed as a defensive tackle by the Broncos – which either attests to his flexibility or points to a problem on the WMU defensive front that was addressed with a fall practice move.

Although the Broncos play a four man line, which typically leaves the center uncovered, they do appear to have some schemes that tilt one of the inside linemen into the center-guard gap (the "A" gap, in defensive parlance). It will be interesting to see if they run that set against WVU, and how Dent responds to different alignments along the defensive front.

No matter the scheme, however, this is a matchup that West Virginia must win. Not necessarily for this game, but as a building block for the tougher face-offs to come.


THINGS TO WATCH

The play of the defensive line will certainly be scrutinized, but I'm just as interested in watching the rotation as I am in the performance. Of course, the latter is what really matters, but how coach Bill Kirelawich approaches the challenges that face his young, somewhat undersized men in the trenches. How many players will play? How many snaps do they get? And at what positions?

As you watch the defensive line trot out for each series, keep track of who is on the field, and what spots they are playing. By the end of the day, we should have a better picture of who is in the mix right now, who is targeted for spot duty, and who still has work to do. Of course, these answers can change over the course of the season, but for those salivating to determine the real depth chart, tracking the snaps and positions is the best indicator available.

Of particular interest: How many snaps does Keilen Dykes get at nose vs. tackle? Will Scooter Berry flip between tackle and end? Is Marcus Broxie more than a designated rusher? Has James Ingram overcome the injuries that plagued him for much of the fall? It's a game within a game up front, with lots to see.

* * *

Everyone will be watching the freshmen, of course, to see how many of them play and break their redshirts. However, there are a couple of other units to watch as well, as personnel on them may have changed markedly from a year ago.

We're talking about the punt coverage, and even more notably, the kickoff coverage teams. With more ground to cover on kickoffs, the emphasis on getting downfield quickly is higher than ever before. Thus, it won't be a surprise to see a lot of spurs, bandits, safeties and corners on these squads. There is still room, of course, for rugged linebackers to provide protection on the punt wall, and for speedier versions on the kickoff squad, but it won't be a surprise to see an increased number of quick defenders lining up the first time WVU has to kick off.

* * *

As with any "lower-level" team coming in to Mountaineer Field, the assumption is that Western Michigan will be intimidated by playing a highly-ranked BCS foe on the road. But while West Virginia will be the second-highest ranked team the Broncos have ever faced, it's unlikely that they will be fazed but the WVU crowd or the opening day environment.

First, it's hard to imagine that those in attendance will be at a fever pitch. No matter how good Western Michigan is (and I think they are good – perhaps better than five other WVU foes), there is no convincing many of the Broncos' talent. They are lumped in with most other non-BCS conference schools, and quickly dismissed. There will be boos and noise, but the buzz won't be what it is for the home games of November and December.

Second, WMU owns a 2006 road victory over Virginia, played Florida State very well in a 28-20 loss, and has games with Indiana, at Missouri and at Iowa this year. While WVU is ranked higher than all of those teams, it's doubtful that the Broncos, who have designs on a conference title, are going to be fazed by the Mountaineers' talent level, or awed that they are on the field with a BCS team. Even if West Virginia does open it up on the visitors, don't expect them to fold, as some WVU opponents have done over the past couple of seasons.


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