WVU Rushing Defense vs. Auburn Rushing Offense
OK, so it's almost a cliché to note that West Virginia's first and foremost goal on defense is to shut down or limit the rushing game of its opponents. However, at the heart of every cliché is at least a kernel of truth, and in this case that kernel often flowers into victory when the Mountaineers are successful. What makes this the lead storyline of this game, however, is Auburn's likely return to a focus on its run game, which has long been the linchpin of its success. Tiger football is based on hard-hitting defense and a pounding running game, and the list of great Auburn backs is a long one.
This year, several factors, including injuries, the lack of an offensive identity, and musical quarterbacks have kept the Tigers from establishing their dominance on the ground. With young Kodi Burns at the controls for this game, Auburn figures to run the ball, whether in the conventional manner or by using Burns in some spread formations. They'll try to play keep away with the ball and pound WVU into submission – a return to the tried and true formula they have used over the years. The presence of Burns, along with an offensive coordinator that is steeped in Auburn tradition, signals the likelihood of a ground-hugging attack.
West Virginia will have to be prepared for two different styles of runs – one series out of conventional two-back sets and the other out of the spread. WVU's defense obviously has some experience in facing spread offenses, as it defends against its own in practices, but it will have to be prepared to stand up to sledgehammer pounding as well as zone blocking techniques. Recognizing the play and executing proper techniques and gap controls will be key for the Mountaineer defense, which is giving up just 118 yards per game.
While Auburn interior lineman Sen'Derrick Marks gets a great deal of attention and credit for his play, the matchup with Coleman on the outside figures to be just as important.
Obviously, the charge to slow Coleman isn't all on Stanchek. However, when he does face off with him, WVU's savvy senior must be able to keep him out of the pass pocket, and also seal him on some running plays to prevent penetration. On some WVU running plays, the end is invited upfield, only to be kicked out by a block, and Stanchek must be able to sell those plays as if Coleman has the advantage, then finish the play with a strong block to open an inside running play. There's an entire sequence of cat and mouse going on in this battle, and it makes it one that is fascinating to watch. West Virginia faces a difficult challenge in trying to get its running game back on track in this contest, as the Tigers are even stingier against the run than the Mountaineers are. WVU has to keep Coleman and Marks from creating havoc in the backfield if it is to have any chance of mounting a consistent running game.
THINGS TO WATCH
WVU's challenge against Auburn's running defense would be big enough if its running game was humming on all cylinders, but that hasn't been the case. Great performances have been mixed with average ones as West Virginia tries to find the keys to offensive success. Could the answer be found in the running styles of West Virginia's two primary ground-gainers?
White, obviously, is great in the broken field, and at improvisation. Some of his best runs come off of passing plays that yield no open receivers, and from the zone read. Give him the ball, and he'll patiently select the correct gap and do damage.
Despite his speed, Noel Devine hasn't yet managed the intricacies of the stretch play. He hasn't mastered the art of patience, of running horizontal to the line and making a quick cut when a crease appears. To date, he's been better in the I or with another back leading the way, where he gets to the hole more quickly.
Might both those styles be meshed into the game plan this week? It will be interesting to see how many times WVU lines up in the I, or in a two-back set with a lead blocker in evidence for Devine. Putting White under center could limit some of his effectiveness in the run game, but it could also open up more opportunities for Devine. Trying to balance that could be difficult, but if it's successful, West Virginia could find the offensive identity is has been looking for.
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On the Auburn side of the field, the run/pass ratio will be a key element to watch. The Tigers have made noise about blending elements of the spread with its classic power/play-action game, but it's difficult to figure that quarterback Kodi Burns will do much passing. He has just 42 attempts so far this year, and with only 17 completions it would appear that the Tigers will stick to the ground a great deal. Of course, some of those runs could be Burns out of the spread, but if the game stays close it won't be a surprise to see at least 75% of Auburn's plays to be rushes. Obviously, game conditions could change that, and Burns did show the ability against Arkansas of throwing the ball downfield when the Tigers were in hurry-up mode, but with a new offensive coordinator and a still evolving changeover in styles, it figures that the Tigers will stick to the basics and try to ride their defense to a win.
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Will West Virginia's crowd be its normal charged up nighttime self? Or will two losses turn them into the whine and cheese, sit-on-your-hands fans that are becoming more prevalent these days? We've detected a great undercurrent of excitement from West Virginia's players as they prepare for the Tigers. They know this is a chance to get their season back on track, and that a very successful 2008 is still possible. The question is, do WVU's fans know it? Do they realize that support does make a difference? There's always a lot of talk about the intimidation factor being big at West Virginia. And while Auburn has certainly played in loud, hostile environments before, the fact is that this will be a new, unfamiliar experience for them. If the stands are full and loud, WVU gets the boost it's looking for. However, if fans are there just waiting for the first punt or incompletion in order to justify a negative outlook, then one of the key intangibles of this game will go to the visitors. There's nothing more helpful to a team on the road than to hear the home fans silent, or worse, booing the home team.