Preview: WVU - Liberty

The questions are myriad, the answers perhaps forthcoming as West Virginia opens at home against Liberty on Saturday. Game Scorecard
Sat 9/5/09 12:00 PM

Morgantown, WV

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North Carolina W 31-30
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Series: First Meeting
First Meeting: N/A
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WVU – Sidney Glover, (Hamstring) Questionable. Trippe Hale, (Groin) Doubtful, Tyler Rader (Knee) Out, Jorge Wright (Ankle) Probable

Liberty – None


WVU Offense vs. Liberty defense

This will be arguably the most talented offensive unit Liberty has played in more than a decade. The Flames – which did face a FBS school for nine consecutive years prior to last season – allowed just 18.7 points per game last year, and are primed to match those numbers again on the FCS level. The front three of coordinator Tom Clark's 3-4 look are solid, with ends Trey Jacobs and Virginia Tech transfer Daryl Robertson showing solid agility and quickness. Jacobs led the team in sacks last year, while Robertson finished well after adding strength during the season.

The duo flank nose guard Asa Chapman, a former WVU recruit who played in all 12 games as a true freshman last year. The 6-5, 377-pounder blends above-average athleticism and power for his size, though additional weight has hurt him through his forays into playing at the highest levels. The reserves at the end spots are season juniors, so depth and fatigue worries at those areas are lessened. Watch Chapman, however, to see if he can hold up under the constant double-teams from the Mountaineer interior line, or whether he and the considerably smaller freshmen behind him begin to give ground and get shoved into the second level.

The linebackers, blessed with numbers but not outstanding talent, jostled for starting bids all camp under Clark. The Maryland grad was reassigned in the offseason to directly oversee the group in addition to coordinator duties, similar to West Virginia's Jeff Casteel. Liberty lists seniors Ian Childress and Wes Cheek as the strong and weakside starters, respectively, with Doncel Bolt and Chad Brown in the middle. The group has some size, and the backups are experienced, but there's no marquee go-to leader. Childress is the obvious choice after being granted a fifth year of eligibility because of an injury his freshman season. Clark will likely rotate this unit thoroughly, especially if WVU is controlling the clock via the ground game.

Three starters are back for a secondary which helped hold offenses to 208 passing yards per game in '08. Preseason All-Big South pick Chris Rocco (nephew of head coach Danny Rocco) mans the "left" safety slot, and the physical defensive back should exceed his 78 tackles from last year. At 5-10, he's exactly average in height for a secondary that lacks size. Fellow safety Larry Claiborne is the tallest starter at 6-1, with Donald Manns and Tim Torrence listed at 5-10 and 5-8, respectively. Torrence was tabbed All-Big South after steadily improving during the season. The senior can play a variety of backfield positions, and is moved at times when the staff mixes in nickel and dime looks. This is an area West Virginia can exploit, especially with its rangier wideouts. Wes Lyons, a longtime favorite target of quarterback Jarrett Brown, should be a major mismatch when he plays the slot, but that has been the case for years now.

The Flames, while lacking the raw skill and speed of higher-level units, are underrated on defense. Liberty routinely shut down FCS offenses, and it has some experience entering this year. The problems will likely come at nose tackle when Chapman wears, or in early-season communication issues at linebacker. The relative inexperience of the unit could combine with the already tangible issues of an opening day game – mental errors, penalties, etc. – to allow the Mountaineers to stay with their basics and yet net significant yardage simply via talent. WVU will have its own issues along its offensive line, though, which could make for entertaining, if not clean, play when the two sides clash.

By The Numbers (2008 season)
West Virginia Liberty
Scoring Offense 24.5 ppg Scoring Defense 18.7 ppg
Rushing Offense 209.9 ypg Rushing Defense 125.9 ypg
Passing Offense 150.5 ypg Passing Defense 208.8 ypg

Advantage: West Virginia

WVU Defense vs. Liberty Offense

West Virginia returns the majority of its 11th-ranked scoring defense, and that will be the unit expected to perform best in the opener. Liberty, too, should be better offensively than defensively, but on paper it doesn't have nearly enough talent to play with the Mountaineers. One exception is at quarterback, where South Carolina transfer Tommy Beecher – who was the opening-game starter for Gamecocks' head coach Steve Spurrier in 2008 – has a stranglehold on the job vacated after three years by the graduated Brock Smith. Beecher, a 6-2, 227-pound senior, is a pocket passer who won't threatened on the perimeter. As Casteel has often noted, that immediately simplifies the potential defensive problems and should free the Mountaineers to focus on other issues. Beecher is mobile enough, however, to create some throwing space and deliver solid strikes on the move. Beecher connected on 31 of his 50 passes at South Carolina for 320 yards and two scores. He will be aided by fellow USC transfer Freddie Brown, a wideout who will help fill the gaping hole left by the graduation of the top two receivers in Dominic Bolden and Jonathan Crawford. Bolden tallied 1,056 receiving yards (second highest in program history), while Crawford finished with 713 receiving yards. The combined 1,769 receiving yards was the second-highest for any tandem in school history.

Brown, 6-3, 210 pounds, is a long strider and can pull away from smaller defensive backs on deeper routes. He averaged almost 11 yards per catch at South Carolina, and is considered one of two deep threats for the Flames after being a third option and a possession-type wideout in Columbia. Chris Summers, 6-4, 190 pounds, lacks the strength of Brown but is an instant mismatch with his size. He played in all 12 games last year and is the top returner despite his lack of impressive statistics. Mike Brown mans the third wideout slot, while Will Quarles is the tight end. Mike Brown was the starter at quarterback before Beecher's transfer, and the 6-0, 190 pound sophomore is too skilled to keep off the field. Quarles leans toward being a blocking type of tight end, but has bettered his pass catching and route running abilities. He won't be a downfield threat, but could come up with a few key third down conversions if WVU doesn't respect his ability.

The running game, normally the dominant force for Liberty, is in a rebuilding phase after the Flames lost Rashad Jennings (former Pitt player) to the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars (7th round) and Zach Terrell to graduation. That is expected to drop Liberty from its No. 13 national mark of 213.5 yards per game of last year. West Virginia will provide an excellent early test, as its front six is expected to be solid, especially within the linebacking corps. This is the fastest overall team Liberty tailback B.J. Hayes will play this year. The sophomore emerged from spring practice expected to be the lead wideout, but the transfer of Freddie Brown and the development of other prospects allowed the staff to slide Hayes into the backfield. He has yet to gain more than 76 yards in a game, however, and could struggle in his first start. Fullback Derek Bishop, 5-10, 225 pounds, isn't as beefy as most the Mountaineers play, but he has a bit of a burst and he'll fight through tackles.

The line play will be a mixed bag, as left guard Brian Mosier and right tackle Josh Weaver – both All-Big South picks – anchor an initial five that also includes three new starters. Those players, though, have been in the program for more than two years, so the transition should be smooth. Center Mario Crosby and right guard Alex Stradler (6-5, 310 lbs.) should be able to handle their assignments.

By The Numbers (2008 season)
West Virginia Liberty
Scoring Defense 17.0 ppg Scoring Offense 33.7 ppg
Rushing Defense 131.6 ypg Rushing Offense 213.5 ypg
Passing Defense 197.3 ypg Passing Offense 233.2 ypg

Advantage: West Virginia

WVU Special Teams vs. Liberty Special Teams

West Virginia has major questions after losing Pat McAfee and attempting to shore up coverage issues on kickoffs. Head coach Bill Stewart has noted that WVU could utilize two kickers – one for shorter kicks and one for longer attempts – in addition to Josh Lider for kickoffs and Scott Kozlowski on punts. Liberty's Mike Bevins and Mike Larsson will handle placekicks and punts, respectively. Bevins will also handle kickoffs. Bevins made 12 of 16 field goal tries last year, 44 yards being his longest. One try was blocked. Larsson averaged 34.6 yards on 17 punts last year.

Mike Brown will hold and return punts and kickoffs. Freshman Aldreakis Allen will join Brown as the first pair on kickoff returns. Brown returned just one punt last year because he was behind other skill players who have since departed. He has no kickoff returns to his credit. Both of these units are very inexperienced in key slots, making this a toss-up. The Mountaineers have more speed and skill, but an errant play here and a missed tackle and lane assignment there could significantly swing this category.

By The Numbers (2008 season)
West Virginia Liberty
Net Punting 40.5 yards Net Punting 25.6 yards per punt
KO Returns 21.5 yards per return KO Returns 22.1 yards per return
Punt Returns 7.9 yards per return Punt Returns 14.6 yards per return

Advantage: Even


On Offense: Interior line – Joe Madsen, Eric Jobe, Josh Jenkins

On Defense: Reed Williams


This is a solid second-tier team against a West Virginia squad with plenty of their own questions entering the season. The talent gap, though remains large and could be even larger than it would have been if the teams had played last season when WVU had Patrick White and a solid backup quarterback somewhat offset by an exceptional Liberty tandem of receivers and more balanced depth across the board. This should be a cruiser game for the Mountaineers, especially if they can control the line play and, as a corollary, harass Beecher and bottle the run. That trio will make for a 1-0 start barring major breakdowns on special teams.

WVU - 34 Liberty - 13

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