Matchups: West Virginia - Syracuse

Two aspects of WVU's defensive play will be under the microscope when the Mountaineers host Syracuse on Saturday Game Scorecard
Series: SU 30-25
Sat 10/11/08 Noon
Morgantown WV

Mountaineer Field
Record: 3-2
Last Game
Rutgers W 24-17

Radio: Sirius, MSN

Record: 1-4
Last Game
Pitt L 34-24
Rosters/ Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2008 Schedule
First Meeting: 1945
Last Meeting: 2007
Press Release
Season Stats
2008 Schedule

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WVU kickoff coverage vs. SU kick returners Mike Holmes and Max Suter

West Virginia's kickoff coverage team, yielding 28.6 yards per return, will have a big challenge in the form of a proven pair of Orange return men.

Speedy Mike Holmes is the most recent addition to the long line of outstanding kick returners on The Hill. He returned a Pittsburgh kickoff 90 yards for a score, and averages 26.3 yards per return. Teamed with shifty Max Suter, who set an NCAA record with 1,299 kickoff return yards a season ago, and the Orange present a big challenge to opposing cover teams. There's no kicking away from danger (not that West Virginia has been employing such a strategy), so the pressure will be on WVU's cover team to make tackles.

West Virginia's approach to solving the coverage issue should be one of the more interesting subplots in the game. Will the Mountaineers go with a sky kick, the high-hanging boot that emulates a punt and theoretically allows the coverage team time to get downfield? WVU hasn't executed the kick part of this well, and foes have been able to hit a spread out coverage squad instead of a solid wall of defenders. Or will it try the much-maligned grounder or squib kick that allowed Rutgers to score a late touchdown and get back into the game?

Whatever strategy is employed, the execution must be better. West Virginia must direct kicks away from returners, and make them run a long way to get the ball. That also serves from getting return men away from the intended path of the return, and while this doesn't always guarantee coverage success, it is one more hurdle for the return team to overcome. As you watch WVU's kickoffs, keep an eye not only on the type of kick, but also where it lands in relation to the return man. Kicks that don't force the returners to move are much more easy to return, and will put greater stress on a kick coverage team that is already starved for success.

WVU linebackers vs. SU fullback Tony Fiammetta

Syracuse's offensive schemes during the Greg Robinson era have wandered all over the map, but the Orange may have found a bit of a groove the last couple of weeks with its power running game. Leading the way for Curtis Brinkley, fullback Tony Fiammetta will be a challenge for West Virginia's linebackers.

J.T. Thomas
Using Fiammetta as a blocker at the point of attack, Syracuse has sprung Brinkley for 100-yard performances in each of its past two games. Fiammetta is a throwback to the Rob Konrad fullback days at the Cuse, when a powerful blocker led the way for a number of excellent backs. Fiammetta has the size to take on the biggest of linebackers and make his blocks stick, and if he gets engaged with a defender on the second level, he's usually able to take his foe out of the play.

WVU's ability to get off blocks will be key against the senior captain, who doesn't appear to miss many assignments. The Mountaineer backers will need to play with low pad levels and not allow Fiammetta to get underneath, or get into their bodies and tie them up. And while the bruising senior doesn't carry the ball much, he's also a threat to catch the ball. After hammering with blocks play after play, Fiammetta can slip out into the flat or past backers glad to see him go, and then catch a pass for a good gain.

Fiammetta could also see running back Delone Carter, who has missed the last two games, back in the Syracuse lineup. That would give him another player to clear the way for, and perhaps give the Orange the weapons they need to control the ball and shorten the game even further. Look for Syracuse to make it a smashmouth game, and watch to see how West Virginia's linebackers stand up to what figures to be a constant pounding.


As it calls defenses and gets players aligned, West Virginia has at times scrambled to get players in the right spots on occasion this year. A few of these instances are attributable to late calls from the sideline, and can leave the defense somewhat mentally scrambled as it prepares to react to the snap. However, at times, that very same thing might be of benefit for the Mountaineer defenders.

How's that, you ask? A look at the offense reveals the answer. In today's cat and mouse game, many play calls aren't made until the defensive personnel are seen, and the defense waits until it knows the offensive personnel grouping.. On the defensive sideline, a graduate assistant or manager often holds aloft a two-digit number, indicating how many running backs and tight ends are on the field. The defense then gets its call, but sometimes that doesn't happen until the offense breaks the huddle and starts to line up. Whether intentional or unintentional, that often keeps the offense from checking off to another play from the coaches in the booth, especially if the play clock is winding down. And under today's new timing rules, that happens more and more often.

Watch as both teams break their huddle, or, if they don't huddle, as the approach the line. Which team gets set first? Does the offense have time to react to a late change by the defense? Is the defense getting set before the snap? There are many parts of this dance that have a big effect on the eventual success or failure of the play.

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On the other side of the ball, there is one item that most observers would dearly love to see – continued use of the tight end in the passing game.

Before we go further, understand that this isn't a plea for West Virginia throw to the tight end like Dallas, San Diego or Kansas City do in the NFL. The ball needs to stay in the hands of White, Devine, and Sanders (and hopefully, the occasional wide receiver) the majority of the time. However, Tyler Urban's touchdown reception against Rutgers shows that opposing defenses simply aren't concentrating on the tight end in many situations.

Granted, WVU's tight ends aren't going to be as open as Urban was on his catch. He could have run all the way to Cooper's Rock before being tackled. But that reception shows that West Virginia could toss tow or three passes per game to Urban, or to Will Johnson, as it did in most of its spring and fall scrimmages. When asked, coaches will say that such plays, "are still in the game plan". However, that doesn't mean they are being called in the game. How many times will Johnson or Urban go into pass patterns this week? What happened to the swing passes in the flat to Johnson, who would figure to have some room to operate as foes concentrate on WVU's primary offensive weapons?

Keep track of Urban and Johnson this week. How many times are they on the field? How many routes do they run? And most importantly, does the ball come in their direction? Keep track – and get an idea of how West Virginia is really using its tight ends and H-Backs.

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In the end analysis, this is a TCB game for West Virginia – Taking Care of Business. WVU has had a number of this type of games over the past couple of seasons, but none with its offense functioning as it as this season. That fact, in and of itself, means that this game might have a little more meaning than such contests in years past. How will West Virginia handle it. Will the Mountaineers be loose, and find some of the flow they've been looking for? Or will it be another nail-biter – one in which they are in a fight for their lives at the end? The result could be indicative of much more than just this one game.

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