Rain or shine, West Virginia's game against East Carolina on Saturday (or Sunday or whenever the Mountaineers and Pirates will lock horns) could ultimately come down to a battle in the trenches. Last year, WVU rumbled for nearly 400 yards on the ground en route to a 48-7 thrashing in Morgantown.
In 2005 and 2006, however, the Pirates and defensive coordinator Greg Hudson relied on sound open-field tackling within a disciplined scheme to frustrate West Virginia's high-octane ground game. While both of those games were still narrow victories for the Mountaineers, ECU head coach Skip Holtz has accumulated enough talent and continuity in Greenville to pull off an upset of the Mountaineers should his charges play as well as they did in two of his first three meetings with West Virginia.
"I think their defensive line, their ends are quick and their defensive tackles are stout," explained WVU tackle Ryan Stanchek. "They have a great defense. They have great linebackers. Quentin Cotton is a stud, and their middle linebacker, (Pierre) Bell is good too.
"I think they've always played hard against us," he continued. "They've had a couple of great games against us. We definitely have to come to play. They play well against us, especially defensively."
Last weekend in their season-opening win against Virginia Tech, the Pirates caught the attention of the nation. In Morgantown, though, this weekend's game was circled on the calendar long before ECU upended the Hokies.
"These are the games you want to play in. You want to play in the big games," Stanchek said. "They're going to be hostile down there, and they have a great crowd in a really nice stadium."
With the heavy rains and wind of Hurricane Hanna expected to have, at minimum, an effect on the grass playing surface of Bagwell Field at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Saturday's big game could turn out to be a bona fide mud fest. According to Stanchek, that's quite alright with he and his mates on the offensive line.
"Oh yeah," the All-American said with a grin. "As an offensive line, we love the rain. We don't care. We just want to play football, whether it's in a parking lot or wherever. It's football. We're excited to play."
During the waning moments of the season-opening win over Villanova, defensive lineman Thor Merrow was credited with an assisted tackle. Yes, the same Thor Merrow who, until the week leading up to the Villanova game, was playing fullback and tight end. Of course prior to spring drills, Merrow was a defensive lineman. And that, according to him, is where he will continue to play until further notice.
"I'm back on defense right now. I'm staying at defense," Merrow said. "Whatever is best. I'll do whatever. Wherever they need me, I'll be there."
Merrow may be a tad undersized by traditional defensive line standards, but his above-average speed and physical toughness help make up for that lack of size. With West Virginia searching for fullbacks and tight ends at the beginning of spring drills, Merrow was given a look on the offensive side of the ball. But, with the emergence of converted wide receiver Will Johnson and true freshman Tyler Urban, a lack of depth at that position was shored up by the end of fall camp. Thus, the switch back to defensive line.
Despite spending the entire spring and all of fall camp in a white (offense) practice jersey, it didn't take long for the Buford, Ga. native to reacclimate himself to the trenches.
"Everything came back pretty quick. I've played defense my whole life, so it was easy to get back into it," Merrow said. "Nose guard is just a brutal, beat-down spot. The toughest man wins.
"You just keep playing hard, working hard and hope that everything comes out good."
Finally, at least one member of the Mountaineer coaching staff is able to lend some perspective from East Carolina's side of the annual tilt between the schools. Wide receivers coach Lonnie Galloway spent two seasons in Greenville under former head coach John Thompson, and was on the ECU sidelines for a pair of lopsided losses at the hands of West Virginia.
"This is going to be a big game, a huge game, for them," Galloway said. "They consider it a big game, and it will be really charged up down there. Their fans are like West Virginia fans. They're crazy. They love football.
Thompson's tenure at the helm of the Pirate program ended after only two seasons. Galloway then moved to the other side of North Carolina for a three-year stint at Appalachian State before accepting his current position at West Virginia earlier this year.
"I know some of their players down there still," he said. "I recruited some of those guys. It will be a big game for them."