Matchups: West Virginia - Marshall

The key clashes and faceoffs to watch as West Virginia hosts Marshall. Game Scorecard
Series: WVU 7-0
Sat 09/27/08 3:30 PM
Morgantown, WV

FMountaineer Field
Record: 1-2
Last Game
CU L 14-17

TV: Big East Local
Radio: Sirius, MSN

Record: 3-1
Last Game
S Miss W 34-27
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Season Stats
2008 Schedule
First Meeting: 1911
Last Meeting: 2007
Press Release
Season Stats
2008 Schedule

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WVU pass defense vs. MU Tight End Cody Slate

While Marshall has a number of talented wide receivers that will likely give the Mountaineer pass defense all it can handle, it will likely be the Herd tight ends, and Slate in particular, that WVU will have to slow in order to have a chance to win the game.

That's correct -- a chance to win the game. If West Virginia can't figure out a way to contain Slate, the Mountaineers will again find themselves on the short end of the score. Last week at Colorado, the Buffaloes got away from the pass after their first two drives, and although they were able to run the ball well, they weren't able to do it consistently enough to sustain drives. Colorado threw the ball on eight of its nine first drive plays (and scored a touchdown) then passed on three of its next five plays to score again. After that, the Buffs passed it just 22 more times, while running it 42 times. And scored just three points. See a pattern?

Marshall won't likely make that mistake. They will see that West Virginia has had trouble defending the middle of the field, especially against four and five receiver sets. Look for the Herd to flex Slate out at times and get him running across the middle of the field behind wideouts clearing the way, or occasionally sending him down the hash marks in an attempt to get him behind the underneath coverage. (WVU might take a couple of notes from that in an attempt to better utilize the talents of Will Johnson.)

WVU must be more aggressive in closing on the ball on these routes, and must not allow Slate to cross the field unmolested. Reed Williams, who had a perfect read and pick of Colorado quarterback Cody Hawkins, will need to be just as sharp to help keep Slate contained.

WVU Wide Receiver Jock Sanders vs. The Game Plan MU

O.K. so Jock isn't going to be battling the play calls to get the ball. He does, however, need to be a part of it if West Virginia is to become more consistent offensively.

Jock Sanders
West Virginia's desire to get the ball to Patrick White and Noel Devine is a good call, of course. But it can't become a two-trick pony, as it was against Colorado, and to a slightly lesser extent against East Carolina. While setting goals for a specific number of touches or plays is often counterproductive, getting Sanders the ball 8-10 times against the Herd would serve several purposes. It would remove the focus from the White/Devine tandem. It would force Marshall to account for Sanders' presence, whether he's lined up in the slot or in the backfield. It could open the door for more ground in the running game, as WVU's wider offensive line splits against Colorado made it a bit easier to get better blocking angles against defensive ends. And finally, it could help revive any flagging confidence issues for Sanders, who has had trouble hanging on to the ball this year.

Whether Sanders is the answer to WVU's third down woes is another issue – one that we're not talking about here. Sanders can be a great alternative on first and second downs. Get him the ball on a couple of bubble screens (yes, I said it). Run him on quick slants and get the ball to him early on hot reads. And run the counters and cross-action plays out of the backfield, with Devine alongside.

West Virginia has yet to establish an offensive identity in 2008, although it seems headed in much the same direction now as it was in 2007. It appears set on running the ball, partly to help the defense, and partly because that's what it does best. That's fine – and probably the best decision for this team at this point. However, in doing so, it can't abandon what appears to be its one viable alternative to White and Devine.


West Virginia's shuffled defensive front played reasonable well against Colorado, so it bears watching against the Herd. Defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich moved Pat Liebig out to end and slotted former edge rusher Julian Miller at nose in relief of Chris Neild. That lineup is likely to continue its appearance this week. Miller was the nose on WVU's SWAT package, which makes its appearance in passing situations, and played well enough there that he will now get a look as Chris Neild's partner at that spot. Liebig is well-versed at all three positions, and is switching out to end to help provide more consistent play at end.

All this switching, of course, can have a drawback – confusion in assignments. However, the units' best play came in this alignment against Colorado, with Doug Slavonic also chipping in to provide help at tackle. If this group can find a way to generate a pit of pressure on its own, WVU's defense could make another big step forward.

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Pressure – generated by West Virginia's blitzes -- will be key in this game. Perhaps the biggest one defensively for the Mountaineers. If WVU lets quarterback Mark Cann get comfortable in the pocket, the Herd will throw for 300 yards and leave Morgantown with its first win ever over the Mountaineers. That doesn't mean that WVU has to bring five or six players on every passing down, however. It does mean that when WVU runs a blitz, it needs to execute it correctly and at least get close to the quarterback.

Blitzing isn't a matter of just telling a player to rush the passer. Blitzes are run to specific spots, with timing of twists and stunts designed to get the blitzers into gaps at just the right time. Too many of West Virginia's blitzes this year have seen two players in the same gap, or a blitzer getting jammed up by the teammate that was supposed to clear his way. As you watch WVU's defense, keep an eye on the second level – the linebackers, spurs and bandits. Watch their paths to the quarterback when they blitz, and how they interact with the linemen in front of them. Their efficiency will go a long way in determining the defense's success against the MU passing game.

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Finally, what will WVU do on third down and short against the Herd? While suggestions for solutions to this problem are more numerous and widespread than solutions to high gas prices, there may be a couple of things to look for in this area.

First, a return to the strategy of a year ago, when Patrick White was put in the shotgun and told "Go get the first down", could be back. Although that exposes White to more hits, I'm sure he would prefer that to the alternative of punting the ball away on the next play. Spreading the field with three or four wide receivers could also help.

Second, while position switches aren't being considered by Stewart (his response was a flat "No" when asked about the possibility of moving a guard or another putative blocker to fullback), that doesn't rule out the possibility of another player making an appearance. Backup Ricky Kovatch is one option. Jarrett Brown (lining up at QB or elsewhere) could be another. WVU appears to be trying to redshirt Ryan Clarke, but if the woes continue, it may not have any other choice but to try him in the blocking role. Consider, however, the fact that backups are backups for a reason. It's because they haven't performed as well as the starters in the coaches' eyes. If that's the case, then inserting them simply for the sake of change might not provide the best chance for success.

In any event, when the down and distance reads third and one or two, check the players on the field and their alignment. Will there be any changes from the sets shown in the last two games?

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