The No. 5 Mountaineers (3-0) plan to utilize a mix of pressure - and press coverage - to harass East Carolina quarterback Patrick Pinkney, then mix in the normal three-man rush to blanket wideouts. The guessing game for the three-year scout team player will be not just who is coming from where, but when -- the key element in the mental battle between fourth-year ECU spread offensive coordinator Steve Shankweiler and West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel.
"You try to mess with him on that pre-snap read," WVU cornerback Vaughn Rivers said. "The way our defense has been moving around this year in the pre-snap, we are noticing it is starting to get to quarterbacks."
West Virginia, burned last year by a series of blown deep coverages and slow-developing routes across the face of linebackers, installed a two-safety look for certain snaps during the offseason. The added flexibility has better disguised coverages and blitz angles, allowing the Mountaineers to play a show-and-snatch with opposing signal callers. The benefits are two-fold: More defensive options and camouflage with virtually the same amount of complexity and the added deep protection on throws downfield. The dividends are evident. WVU, which failed to record a sack until game five last season, has pressured more effectively, recording 11 in 120 minutes thus far. It has also managed four interceptions and three fumble recoveries for a positive 7:4 ratio overall. Pair that with seven forced fumbles and a total of 16 tackles for loss, and in three games, 41 of 202 opposing snaps -- or more than one of every five -- have resulted in a negative gain or worse.
"Last year we were so predicable that when we had that one high safety they knew we were always in man or cover three," Rivers said of the two-corner, one-safety set. "Now, with that two-man, we are moving around and it is hard to get a good feel for what we are in until they say hike."
That's what Pinkney will face in his third career start. The junior has thrown for 609 yards in his last two outings combined, but is getting flushed often because of a young offensive line that has yet to jell. Casteel will likely attempt to follow the pocket-or-pressure approach, calling varying alignments and play sets after factoring down and distance, among other tangibles like field position and if the initial blitzes are reaching Pinkey, who accounts for an average of 277 yards per game (231 via the pass).
"In the past, we would try to force him to throw," said safety Eric Wicks, who recorded two interceptions in WVU‘s 31-14 win at Maryland last week. "But in forcing him to throw and playing back, we don't know how much time he can make for himself in the pocket. We are trying to set it up both ways to where we can force him in and out of the pocket so he doesn't know. If we can confuse him and get him in and out, that will work."
Pinkney's scrambling ability - he has been sacked just four times, none in limited action in the opener at Virginia Tech - also places an added importance on coming to balance defensively and making a solid wrap tackle. The odd stack's design allows for athletes to make plays in space, and its swarming nature via angles running to the ball should help. But if Pinkney routinely slips a tackle or two, West Virginia could find itself broken instead of merely bending.
"If a team wants to come out and pass, from a DB standpoint, you come out and work even harder not to be embarrassed on a national level," cornerback Larry Williams said. "We have to come out and focus. Instead of us playing back, we want them to throw the ball so we can make plays. We have to play within the defense because he has the ability to take it to the house running or passing. Don't try to be a hero, just execute your assignments. If we do that, we should be fine."
Pinkney might have to handle the bulk of the offense himself. The Pirates (1-2) have rushed for an average of just 101 yards per game to rank 96th of 119 teams in the NCAA Bowl Subdivision. Neither Chris Johnson or Dominique Lindsey have netted 100 yards total in three games and just 19 of ECU's 54 first downs have come on the ground, making ball control and clock management difficult. The Pirates have, however, turned the ball over just four times while forcing eight. They scored off just three of those, however.
"The easiest way is to get (Pinkney) out of the game, get him off the field," Rivers said. "That's one thing coach (Rich Rodriguez) has stressed to us. If we can get him off the field, we can get in his mind and get him rattled. He is a very vital part of their offense. Everything they do surrounds him and he does (look like a first-year player) with some of the reads he makes and the way he stares down receivers. It brings out the characteristics of a first-year guy and not a seasoned guy. But some of the plays he makes outside of that pocket, he does a lot with his feet."
If Pinkney can get loose, it does provide additional chances for big hits on the inexperienced player, who has yet to see a defense of West Virginia's speed for an entire game. The Mountaineers have allowed an average of 20 points in wins over Western Michigan, Marshall and Maryland, but have yielded 230 mean yards of passing offense per outing on 99 total tosses, albeit mostly in late game situations. WVU had four sacks against the Terrapins, half on the final drive when UM was forced to throw.
"That's the only good thing about a running quarterback is that you can get shots on him," said linebacker Reed Williams, who leads West Virginia in tackles with 32, two for a loss. "If you can knock him out of the game, it's great for the defense and team morale. It's something we are excited about. I don't really like seeing (a mobile quarterback), but it's something you have to get used to. That's really what football is going to, and (Pinkney) can get out and make plays and make people miss. We have to try and get him on the ground."