Matchups: WVU - East Carolina

As West Virginia returns home to face East Carolina, these battles will be among the keys to victory for a Mountaineer squad looking to go to 4-0.






BlueGoldNews.com Game Scorecard
Series: WVU 16-2-0
Sat 9/22/07 Noon
Morgantown, W. Va.

Milan Puskar Stadium
Record: 3-0
USA/Coaches: 5th
Last Game
Maryland W 31-14

Click for Morgantown, West Virginia Forecast
Record: 1-2
USA/Coaches: NR
Last Game
So. Miss. L 21-28
Rosters/ Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2007 Schedule
First Meeting: 1970
Last Meeting: 2006
Rosters/Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2007 Schedule

MATCHUPS AND STORYLINES

WVU safety Eric Wicks vs. ECU Utilityman Dwayne Harris

In baseball, the term "utility player" often denotes a light-hitting performer who can fill in at several positions, but isn't counted on to make a big offensive impact. That's certainly not the case with Harris, who lines up at several different positions for the Pirates, and is looking to become more of an offensive force with each snap.

Harris, who could line up at wide receiver, running back or quarterback for ECU, is the Pirates' version of a "slash" player that must be accounted for anywhere on the field. While foes' attention will likely be on emergent quarterback Patrick Pinkney, Harris hopes to keep below the defensive searchlight and slip unnoticed into the Pirate attack. He isn't listed as a starter on offense, but that doesn't mean he's limited in that regard. He's likely to pop up at any of ECU's skill positions, although his appearances at quarterback are likely to diminish with the emergence of Patrick Pinkney at that position.

Harris isn't limited to offensive snaps. He also returns punts and is a member of ECU's kick coverage teams, and has become a valuable all-around member of the squad as a redshirt freshman.

Although Wicks won't be spying on Harris, or assigned to him other than in his normal pass coverage or run support duties, the parallels between the two players are interesting. Wicks is the "do-it-all" defender in West Virginia's lineup, and after a sluggish start appears to be rounding into the playmaking form that the Mountaineers need. He had two interceptions against Maryland and showed more of the active play that WVU has come to expect.

Although Harris will provide a different sort of challenge than what West Virginia has seen from typical ECU players over the past few years, it can also count on Wicks' history of good play against the Pirates. Last year he recorded eight tackles, intercepted a pass, and recorded a nine-yard tackle for loss and a pass break up in a stellar defensive effort. He will need to approach those numbers this year if he and his teammates are to hold the varied ECU attack in check.


WVU tackle Jake Figner vs. ECU defensive end Zack Slate

Figner holds the size advantage in this battle, but will have to contend with Slate's quickness and instincts to keep him out of the Mountaineer backfield



Jake Figner
Slate is a bit undersized at 225 pounds, but that hasn't stopped the junior from racking up impressive numbers against quality competition. From his left end position, Slate has recorded 5 ½ tackles for losses, including two sacks, and has forced a fumble while making 19 tackles. He has obviously done well at penetrating opposing backfields, and while the ECU game plan might not call for as much upfield push against West Virginia, he must certainly be accounted for no matter what the play call.

Slate will also be key in defending West Virginia's backside, or counter runs, with quarterback Patrick White. WVU often starts the flow of the play, with Steve Slaton and the entire offensive line moving in one direction, only to have White pull the ball back after a fake to Slaton and run to the opposite side of the flow. Maryland combated this play by using its weakside linebacker to mirror White on many plays – look for ECU to do so with its ends. If Slate holds his pursuit line and doesn't get sucked in by the action up front, he should be in good position to corral, or at least slow, White. If he doesn't the WVU signalcaller will be off to the races.

Figner, on the other hand, will have to control Slate and not let him slide off blocks. Slate has done well in that regard so far this year, so Figner, an underrated technician who doesn't attract attention, will be challenged to control him and create running lanes for the WVU backfield. East Carolina has gotten considerable credit, and deservedly so, for containing WVU's running game over the past two seasons, and the defensive line has been a big part of that story.

Although it's certainly not as exciting as watching Slaton, White, Schmitt and Devine, give a few seconds at the start of each play to this battle up front. It, like the other matchups in the trenches, is the first steps on the path to victory.


THINGS TO WATCH

The secret is out – and it really isn't much of a secret. According the ECU head coach Skip Holtz, scheme changes and tactical assignments weren't the keys to the Pirates' performance against WVU's rushing game the past couple of years – it was simply a matter of playing assignment football and limiting the big play.

Of course, that's not what many want to hear. There must be some sort of secret sauce to ECU's defense, right? Well, not really. East Carolina simply plays gap control, brings its safeties aggressively down to fill lanes and guard against cutbacks, and tries to prevent the long run. That strategy has been successful, as the Pirates have gone eight consecutive games without giving up a run of more than 25 yards. Virginia Tech, as committed to the ground game as anyone, managed a long run of just nine yards in this year's opener against the Pirates, and averaged just 1.1 yards per carry.

Against West Virginia, Marshall used the same sort of tactics, and while much of the success was credited to defensive coordinator Steve Dunlap, there wasn't anything revolutionary about the things he did. (Credit Dunlap, of course, with being able to figure out what worked and applying it to his defense.)

WVU will have a couple of options against this. It can go back to its power rushing game, or it can try to attack the Pirates in the deep middle of the field, in those zones vacated by the safeties. Watch how ECU's defensive linemen and linebackers play, and how they don't storm upfield at every opportunity, but rather try to contain the Mountaineer attack. That could lead to smaller gains per play by the Mountaineers, but could also lead to several lengthy offensive possessions if WVU is content to grind out shorter, but steadier gains.

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How similar will East Carolina's offense be to that of West Virginia's? Head coach Rich Rodriguez notes that the Pirates run some of the same plays as his Mountaineer squad, but without a running threat on the level of Steve Slaton, it would stand to reason that quarterback Patrick Pinkney will be the focal point of the rushing gamel. That's not a slam at the Pirate backfield, which has some talent, but just to note that the Pirates can't count on throwing multiple breakaway threats at the Mountaineers.

ECU is likely to try several reverses and ends around against West Virginia, and a trick play or two will almost certainly be included. In trying to induce WVU's defense to overpursue, look for the Pirates to run wide early, then use some counters or QB keepers, much as the Mountaineers use White, to keep the defense off balance.

With WVU's linebackers doing a solid job of getting deep into pass coverage, a few quarterback draws won't be a surprise, either. The Pirates have discovered a weapon in the form of Pinkney, and figures to use him in as many ways as possible. If ECU is able to keep the ball and get some first downs, he might get as many as 60 touches (rushing and passing attempts) in this game.

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Need a final item to track? Watch those yellow flags. West Virginia has been very good in this regard, having been flagged for just 117 yards on 14 plays this year. East Carolina, on the other hand, has been zapped 31 times for 184 yards to date. And were it not for two 15-yarders against perennially over-exuberant Charles Pugh in the Marshall game, WVU would still be well under triple-digits in penalty yardage.

ECU has been hurt by penalties at the worst of times this year, with several flags stopping Pirate drives or preserving them for their foes. If they can eliminate those mistakes, they will have a much better chance of staying in the game. West Virginia, on the other hand, has been excellent at avoiding those kinds of errors, and thus the Mountaineers have been able to record several lengthy drives without any self-inflicted wounds. If WVU keeps its penalty yardage at 50 or less, it will be very difficult to beat.


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