Match-Ups: West Virginia - Liberty

Lining out the face-offs and battles to watch as the Mountaineers open the 2009 season against Liberty.

BlueGoldNews.com Game Scorecard
Sat 9/5/09 12:00 PM

Morgantown, WV

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Series: First Meeting
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MATCHUPS AND STORYLINES

WVU center Joey Madsen vs. Liberty nose guard Asa Chapman

O.K., it's easy to pick out Chapman because he was a one-time WVU commit, but that's not what's behind our thinking in highlighting this head-to-head battle. Rather, it's several other intriguing factors, all of which combine to make this one of the premier contests of the afternoon.

First, there's the angle of Madsen's first college start. Heck, it's his first college game. Although he has shown the ability to snap well and get into his blocks during fall practice, this will be the first time he will have done so in front of 55,000 people. The first time when the game counts on the college level. The first time…for everything. How will he react? What happens when he makes a mistake? How will he respond? Madsen is situated to become a very good, and perhaps great, offensive lineman at West Virginia. To move into a starting role as a redshirt freshman is no small feat. But there's no doubt that growing pains lie ahead – and at center, the effects of those on the rest of the offense can be magnified.

In Chapman, Madsen faces a challenge of gigantic proportions. He has good agility, but his main attributes are size and strength. Especially size. In the neighborhood of 380 pounds (and I bet that the neighborhood extends to the 400 block), Chapman is a load to move, if nothing else. Will Madsen, who has an excellent hip snap to his blocks, and has drawn notice for the ferocity and tenacity which he shows in getting into defenders, be able to move Chapman and deny penetration? Of course, he'll have help on some plays, as moving a nose guard typically draws such assignments. But he'll be alone on some others, and will have to neutralize the biggest opponent he'll face all year – right from the start.

Might West Virginia call a few more passes than normal early on to get Chapman in pass rush mode, and perhaps wear him down? That could also go along with the stated plan of attacking what the defense allows, and the Flames are pretty sure to load up against the run early on, even given the notoriety of Jarrett Brown's passing prowess. Liberty set a school record in 2008 by allowing just 125 yards per game on the ground, and while that's not a lockdown effort, it certainly shows that the Flames believe stopping the run is the first key to winning a game.


WVU running game vs. Liberty linebacker Chad Brown

Liberty's 3-4 defense is schemed to get linebackers swarming to the ball, which is their key to slowing opposing rushing games. Linebacker Chad Brown figures to lead the Flames' corps, and will be a vital cog if they hope to slow down Noel Devine and company.



Noel Devine
While the offensive line is certainly vital in making the running game go, Brown and his teammates will face a challenge of a different sort on Saturday – dealing with the speed and cutbacks of Devine, Jock Sanders and other Mountaineer ballcarriers who juke and jive better than Rich Rodriguez at a press conference. Liberty's backers have certainly been working all week on closing quickly and maintaining discipline against cutbacks, but when such moves can't be simulated by the offense, there can be difficulty in learning the proper pursuit angles to take. It's going to be on Brown, a veteran leader of the defense, to keep his teammates disciplined and covering all of the cutback lanes that Devine is liable to hit.

Look for Liberty to try to cover all the lanes and bottle up West Virginia's sweeps and outside zone plays, and to stress containment over upfield penetration. Creating a solid wall of defenders is often the best way to contain runners like Devine, and can serve to frustrate them when there are no open zones in which to maneuver.

West Virginia, on the other hand, will be hoping to establish its running game and build for the weeks to come. No matter how much the Flames try to bottle up the run, it is still important that the Mountaineers get some movement and have some success on the ground.


THINGS TO WATCH

Liberty has a reputation as a run-oriented attack, but it still passed the ball more than 300 times a year ago. That number could rise with the arrival of transfer quarterback Tommy Beecher, who has the ability to do damage through the air. While it wouldn't be prudent to expect an all-out aerial assault, there's no doubt that the Flames have to think they can have more success via that route than on the ground against West Virginia.

Early on, keep an eye out for a number of different routes as offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter probes the WVU defense for soft spots. Doing so likely won't be a huge risk, as Streeter's quarterbacks have excelled in protecting the football. The Flames did not suffer an interception in the last four games of 2008, and tossed just six all year long. West Virginia pass defense will likely need to be ready to go from the opening possession of the game.

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Kickoff coverage has been beaten to death over the past year, but with good reason. WVU's coverage was abysmal, and that has to improve if the Mountaineers are to improve on their 9-4 record of a year ago. You know it, we know it and certainly head coach Bill Stewart knows it. But how will he attempt to do so? Here are a couple of things to watch.

First, and most importantly, are hang time and placement on kickoffs. Any kick that's in the field of play must be directed so the called coverage has the best chance to get to it. If the coverage team is expecting a kick to its right sideline, and sweeps that way, a boot down the middle or to the left can have disastrous results. Low kicks, which don't give cover team members the chance to get downfield, are also particularly hard to hide. To track this, take a stopwatch and track the hang time on West Virginia's kickoffs. Compare it to that of Liberty, or perhaps a game that you catch on the tube on Thursday or Friday night. It's a first point of comparison that will be key for the coverage team.

The second thing to watch is West Virginia's ability to get off blocks on these plays. While great attention was paid to schemes last year, one of the real factors was WVU's inability to avoid, or defeat blockers and get to the ball. When WVU kicks the ball off on Saturday, don't follow it. Instead, keep an eye on one side of the coverage team, and see how they fare in getting downfield, around the blockers, and to the return man. Those individual battles will have a huge effect on the winner of the war.

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While I don't think West Virginia is going to become like the Syracuse teams of the 80s and early 90s that ran just about every formation known to man, it's still going to be interesting to see how the Mountaineers line up on offense. We've seen a fair amount of both shotgun and under center alignments during fall camp, and out of each set there have also been a lot of different personnel and formation packages. How many times will West Virginia go under center, and of those, how many times will the I formation make an appearance? Is the four-wide receiver set becoming a rarity? How much motion will be in evidence? While WVU certainly won't show everything in the playbook on Saturday, there will certainly be enough to give fans a good idea of what's in store for the remainder of the season.


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