The No. 3 Mountaineers (9-1, 4-1 Big East) will face the league's two premier rush defenses – outside of its own 13th rated odd stack – in consecutive weeks. That appears problematic, save that WVU has run on everyone it has played since 2004. It racked up 295 yards on the ground in the 28-23 win at UC, with quarterback Pat White accounting for 155 of them. It reasons, and the always-imperative match-ups would agree, that West Virginia should be able to move the football on Connecticut.
The issues lie in how it will move it. No longer are the Mountaineers a team that rips off 30-plus yard gainers. It's morphed into a more methodical, if not workmanlike, style of running. The holes that were once there aren't quite as wide and aren't maintained for quite as long. Such is life when one loses an all-Big East guard and the nation's best center. Moves have been made, including sliding Selvish Capers into a starting tackle slot, but the line simply doesn't have the raw ability of yesteryear. So, West Virginia is having to piece together elongated drives. And that means it must execute better for the same results.
It's the idea behind which the odd stack operates. Force foes, through smaller gains, to move down the field on a series of plays. It reasons that, being collegiate team, mistakes will happen more often than not, setting up a defense to make one or two stops on a third and long, or a second and 17 that results due to a holding penalty after a big gainer. WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez addressed such issues after the Cincinnati game, saying how much the handful of penalties hurt the Mountaineers. The fumbles are obvious, and a given, and with the Huskies' ball control offense and ability to score, West Virginia needs to limit, or eliminate, the fumbles and interceptions. What it also will have to do is play cleaner football to mimic its foes.
"I think our opponents are tackling better," Rodriguez said. "They are getting us on the ground, and we've noticed that. We haven't had as many of those big explosive plays. We got two or three big plays against UConn last year, and I think that was the key to that game. For us, we don't like to think that we have to have big plays, but every offensive coach will tell you that if you have more explosive plays then they do, that you are going to win most of the time."
Frankly, West Virginia should produce more big plays than Connecticut's offense. But a balance in that combined with turnovers could be a disaster against a unit that likely needs breaks to win. The Huskies are averaging 28 points and allowing 14, a combined difference of about a touchdown when compared to WVU's averages. Connecticut is playing especially well on pass defense, with 21 interceptions and foes throwing for 195 yards per game and not quite 10 yards per completion. The run defense is giving up 126 yards per outing on the ground, and the total defense of 321 yards per contest ranks 21st in the NCAA. The keys have been solid tackling, even in space, and a zone defense with a solid backend and linebackers who have made plays by confusing quarterbacks and, thus, forcing balls into certain areas of the zone, where they can be defended.
"They do have a lot of zone coverage," Rodriguez said. "Their defense is never out of position. You don't see guys out of position or who don't know their assignments. They do a lot of great things, and they know their assignments. They are a sound, well coached football team, and they are playing with a chip on their shoulder. Once a team starts winning, they have a confidence level, and they've been winning and have had that confidence all year. You can see, even after they lost, they came back the next week and played at a high level."
Part of that emerged from a 5-0 start that was ruined at Virginia in a game UConn should have won. The lone other blemish is a big one, a 27-3 defeat at Cincinnati in which the Huskies were dominated physically. The score really wasn't that close, as UC's spread offense carved up the zone with crisp, intelligent passing. That's not a Mountaineer strength, at least compared to the run game, and so this will turn into a meat eaters game: man-on-man, hat-on-hat, with Connecticut outnumbering West Virginia in the box, taking its chances and hoping to pile made play on top of made play. String enough together and a quarter goes by. String four of those together, and a team has a complete game and a chance at a win. It reads simplistic, and it is, until one factors in the weapons UConn must slow.
"It's going to be a difficult challenge against the number three team in the country," said Connecticut head coach Randy Edsall, in his eighth season. "They present a lot of challenges up front with a solid offense line, they have a tremendous quarterback in Pat White and all that he can do. He can throw and run with escape ability and speed. Then in Steve (Slaton) and Owen (Schmitt) you have two guys that are outstanding. Throw Darius (Reynaud) in there at wide receiver with what he can do when he touches the ball. This is the best team we will play all year. Rich has so many weapons there, any time a guy touches the ball he can take off and go. They have developed themselves offensively to spread the ball more."
Which will loom large. West Virginia must be able to spread out the linebackers, both horizontally and especially vertically, to secure seams for bigger plays. It reads here that at times Rodriguez might not correlate the correct cause wit the effect. The seventh-year coach insists his team begins to move the football because it gains additional first downs that allow it to get into a flow and rhythm, and not because of any sudden variance in play calling. But when WVU throws vertically, it opens other areas of the game. It's no coincidence that when White just missed Reynaud on a deep route in the end zone, the Bearcats began to back off a bit. They had to, or force a burn in the pass game. That opened added rushing lanes, and the offense began to move the football efficiently, with better gains per play.
It's not as much only better execution, then, on the first downs as it is challenging teams with the full arsenal. It's a stretch in all directions that will open seams, and that's something needed with the offensive line play. WVU doesn't need to do anything outside its ability, but know that only a few big plays solidified a win at UConn last season; big plays that were made because of a stretch all over the field. The idea, as always, will be to eliminate turnovers, make solid gains on first down and execute. The Mountaineers proved they could do it against a Cincinnati team with more overall speed than UConn. They also have proven prone to turnovers and a struggle with putting away games. This is another test. Score early and often, and UConn, with its ball control offense, will never have a chance. Allow that defense to begin flowing to the football because of lack of misdirection, stretch or surprise, and it will set up those advantageous circumstances – like third and longs. Then the Huskies will gain a psychological edge difficult to defuse.