Match-Ups: WVU - Auburn

West Virginia's second clash in as many years with the Auburn Tigers brings some classic battles into the spotlight. Game Scorecard
Sat 9/19/09 7:45 PM

Auburn, AL

Jordan-Hare Stadium
Record: 2-0
Last Game
E Carolina W 35-10
Radio: MSN
Record: 2-0
Last Game
Miss St. W 49-24
Rosters/ Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2009 Schedule

Series: WVU 1-0
First Meeting: 2008
Last Meeting: 2008
Press Release
Season Stats
2009 Schedule

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WVU Run Defense vs. Auburn Running Backs

With apologies to the offensive line, which is vitally important to offensive production, this face-off figures to be the highlight of the contest. Auburn features a pair of running backs in Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb that have combined to average 268 rushing yards per game. How can West Virginia handle that duo?

First, WVU's defense is built to stop the run, and it's not as if the Mountaineers haven't slowed fearsome running games before. Auburn, however, poses a difficult challenge in that Tate and McCalebb are different types of runners. Tate can pound it inside and has the size at 220 pounds to break tackles, while McCalebb is a darting cutback runner with excellent moves and speed. West Virginia did a good job containing Tate in last year's game, as he had just five yards on five carries, but he figures to get several more chances this year to get revved up. McCalebb, a one-time West Virginia commitment, is a challenge to contain, and the contrasting styles of the pair is something that the Mountaineers will have to be aware of throughout the game.

Making a judgment on the season's current results to date is difficult. Auburn has piled up monster rushing totals, averaging 345.5 yards per contest. But just how stout are the rushing defenses of Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State? Typically the Bulldogs have featured solid defenses, but that might not be the case this year. To be fair, the same wait-and-see attitude has to be taken toward WVU's defense, which is yielding just 75.5 rushing yards per outing. Liberty did not stress West Virginia's run defense at all, and ECU, while appearing to have talent at running back, can't come close to the speed of McCalebb, or even Tate for that matter.

West Virginia must be disciplined in its gap control, contain cutbacks, and show crisper tackling than it did against East Carolina. If it can do all that, it can force Auburn to throw the ball, which probably isn't its first choice. But if the Tigers can run the ball anywhere near the way it has in the first two weeks of the season, the Mountaineers will be in for a long night on the Plains. The possible absences of Scooter Berry and Reed Williams will make that task all the more difficult.

WVU wide receiver Alric Arnett vs. Auburn cornerback Neiko Thorpe

West Virginia has been able to get the ball deep in its first two games, and Arnett has been a big part of that, even though he has just four receptions on the year.

Alric Arnett
Arnett has made the most of his chances, catching those Jarrett Brown passes for 83 yards, with two of them going for scores. His average of 20.8 yards per catch has given life to WVU's deep passing game, and also helped clear out space in the middle of the field for Jock Sanders and Tyler Urban's short and mid-range routes. If WVU is going to keep its passing game productive, it will need to get a couple of big gains from Arnett, who ran by the ECU defense for a 46-yard scoring reception last week.

Thorpe is a full-time starter for the first time, although he did start one game in 2008. He has responded well, totaling ten tackles (three on special teams) and a pass break-up so far this year. Playing opposite a savvy senior in Walter McFadden, Thorpe might be the target of a few more tests, especially early in the season. He hasn't shown any fear so far, however, so this match-up figures to be a very competitive one.

All of West Virginia's deep catches this year have been to receivers that have been relatively, if not wide, open. With much better athletes on the defensive side in this contest, Arnett and his mates might need to "make a play" against tight coverage. Whether that involves going up to catch a pass above a defender or shielding him away from the ball to grab it, there's likely to be more involved in getting big gains this week.


Remember Maryland's offensive tackles of a few years ago? Those guys were as tall as power forwards, but as big as dancing bears. The same is true of Auburn's bookends, Lee Ziemba (6-8, 208 lbs.) and Andrew McCain (6-6, 299 lbs.). Against Maryland's massive earthmovers, WVU's defensive linemen were often swallowed up and engulfed, allowing Terp quarterbacks more time than a clock shop. That could be a key in this game as well, especially when the Mountaineers go to their SWAT defense.

In that front, WVU goes to four defensive linemen, but the outside rushers are Zac Cooper and Ovid Goulbourne, neither of which have the size to bull rush and battle Ziemba or McCain on even physical terms. They will have to rely on speed, moves, and whatever other tricks they can muster to get pressure in passing situations. If they can't, Chris Todd could end up looking like Scotty McBrien.

To combat that, look for more zone blitzes and pressure from different angles from defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. That doesn't necessarily mean all-out blitzes on every passing down – but it won't be a surprise to see more linebackers and safeties involved in the rush.

* * *

How will West Virginia handle the environment of a night game on the road at an SEC opponent? Head coach Bill Stewart downplays that, as any head coach does, but in reality it's a factor that has to be considered. Why? Look no further than the same coaches, who often thank their fans for being loud and supportive. If it helps you at home, it has to have the opposite effect on the road, right?

The key is to minimize those effects by keeping cool, playing with poise and determination, and not falling behind early. Let 89,000 people get into the game, and they can certainly have an impact. However, if the visitors can put together a drive early, limit big plays and keep at least some momentum, it can blunt the biggest affects a rabid home crowd can have. West Virginia's players have been handling questions about the environment the right way, but the real key will be what happens in the early stages of the game. A start like the one the Mountaineers suffered against East Carolina could be disastrous.

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How will Auburn's defense play West Virginia out of the gate? Will it continue to load up against the run, as both Liberty and ECU did early on? Or will West Virginia's first two game films convince them that the Mountaineers are going to throw it when the odds are stacked against them at the line of scrimmage? While Auburn retains a 4-3 look and returns seven starters from its 2008 unit that was 14th in the country in scoring defense, there figure to be at least a few things that are different from the scheme the Tigers employed at West Virginia a year ago. The Mountaineers were able to gash the Auburn front for 271 yards on the ground, including 207 by Noel Devine, and there's no doubt that the Tigers are still smarting from that. Will that fact dominate their defensive thinking, or will it recognize WVU's achievements in the passing game in 2009? It should be an interesting battle to watch.

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