Gator Bowl Preview

West Virginia's a favorite only within the odds as it faces Florida State in the Gator Bowl in legendary head coach Bobby Bowden's last game. Game Scorecard
Fri Jan. 1, 2010 1:00 PM

Jacksonville, FL

Municipal Stadium
Record: 9-3
BCS: 23
Last Game
Rutgers W 24-21
Radio: MSN
Record: 6-6
Last Game
Florida L 37-10
Rosters/ Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2009 Schedule

Series: FSU 2-0
First Meeting: 1982
Last Meeting: 2005
Press Release
Season Stats
2009 Schedule

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WVU – DL Scooter Berry (Academics) – Out; DB Nate Sowers (Academics) – Out; Chad Snodgrass (Foot) Out.

FSU – OL Rodney Hudson (Knee) – Probable; DB Jajuan Harley (Hamstring) – Questionable; DT Demonte McAllister (Knee) – Questionable; T Garrett Faircloth (Hip) – Questionable; LB Aaron Gresham (Knee) – Questionable; OL John Prior (Knee) – Questionable; LB Vince Williams (Knee) – Questionable; T Antwane Greenlee (Knee) –Questionable; QB Christian Ponder (Shoulder) – Out for Season; LB Maurice Harris (Neck) – Out for Season; TE Caz Piurowski (Knee) – Out for Season.


WVU Offense vs. FSU defense

This looks to be the best side of the ball match-up and execution-wise for West Virginia. The Mountaineers, while working with just five linemen, have managed to run reasonably well during the season and string together a few big plays via the ground and air. WVU was actually above its season average in rushing during the final three games – arguably its toughest stretch – and controlled the clock and thus the other team's offensive chances by grinding out drives. It's the opposite pattern for Florida State, which allowed more than 200 yards rushing per game on average, and has gotten worse as the season progressed. Five of the last seven foes ran for 226 or more yards, and the average per game was almost 260 during the stretch. FSU wasn't much better defending the pass. Just two teams were held under 210 net passing yards, and the poor backfield coverage encouraged opposing teams to throw it. West Virginia threw much more at the start of the year than towards the end, which eliminated chances for big plays and mistakes. Jarrett Brown tossed three interceptions in the final nine games, and WVU rarely beat itself.

That will loom large in this game. Will Jeff Mullen be tempted to take more aerial shots? Not likely unless FSU stops the ground game. Look for the Mountaineers to continue feeding the ball to Noel Devine and Ryan Clarke and only attacking vertically when advantageous or as needed. The first goal will be to strategize for and then locate linebacker Dekota Watson. The 6-2, 226-pound senior was fourth on the team in tackles with 60, 10 of which went for loss including five sacks. More than half of his stops were solo, meaning both that he isn't getting a lot of help and that he makes plays and gets off blocks well. The strongside player teams with Kendall Smith in the middle and Nigel Bradham outside. The duo are the top two team tacklers, combining for 170 stops. Bradham, 6-2, 235 lbs., has an incredible 12 interceptions from a linebacking spot, but the sophomore won't make many plays behind the line of scrimmage. Smith is the better rusher, but obviously can get caught up in traffic more. The down lineman, always solid under Bowden, are led by end Markus White. The junior has solid size (6-4, 261 lbs.) and quickness and leads the team with 11 tackles for loss. WVU left tackle Don Barclay has 30 points in this match-up, but will need to set quickly on passing plays and keep pressing White to the outside and get an upfield push around the pocket to give Brown an escape lane as needed. Tackles Mose McCray and Everett Dawkins are solid, if a bit undersized for the usual FSU front. McCray, listed as the nose tackle, does line-up directly over center at times, so it remains to be seen who West Virginia will start at the position as it has rotated Joe Madsen and Eric Jobe depending upon odd/even fronts and how other teams most often align. The two-deep is a smattering of seniors and freshmen, and though retiring defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews, in his 26th and final season with Florida State, will roll in reserves he lacks the numbers he would like.

The Seminole secondary starts three seniors and a junior, all with experience. That's why the struggle is so puzzling. Players have been beaten, been out of position, missed tackles and just generally lacked execution, especially down the stretch. The best of the bunch this season has been free safety Jamie Robinson. The upperclassman has three picks and five pass break-ups, but is also third on the team in total tackles with 72 – never a good number or stat for a free safety. He has good height at 6-2, and carried his 188 pounds well. The Mountaineers need to be aware of his jump ball ability and knack for getting to the ball at its highest point. Corner Patrick Robinson has 11 PBUs and packs a punch at 5-11, 195 pounds. WVU will have a height edge here. Corner Ochuko Jenije (5-10, 188 lbs.) is also a hitter, but has not covered well. The ‘Noles also employ a Rover-type player in Korey Magnum. The hybrid player, a senior, is backed by a freshman, and must stay healthy if FSU expects much productivity from the slot against West Virginia.

WVU could grind it out here, as Florida State foes have averaged 21 first downs per game. Too, FSU allows red zone scoring 84 percent of the time. Cutback lanes have often been exposed by overrunning plays, and the aggressive nature of Andrews at times leaves the corners exposed, or players in difficult one-on-one match-ups. Head coach Bill Stewart and Mullen will certainly take some downfield shots, but if the grinding ground game is effective, look for close-to-the-sweatervest playcalling with a few surprises tossed in. The Mountaineers are not only executing better than the ‘Noles in this match-up, they seem to have the style of play and weapons to score slowly or quickly. Players have to make the plays, though, and as Mullen noted, it's a player-based game. West Virginia had similar edges in the 2005 Gator Bowl against Florida State but fumbled the contest away. If you're rooting for WVU, you have to like this side of the ball on paper.

By The Numbers
West Virginia Florida State
Scoring Offense 26.6 ppg Scoring Defense 30.8 ppg
Rushing Offense 183.5 ypg Rushing Defense 203.2 ypg
Passing Offense 191.8 ypg Passing Defense 240.2 ypg

Advantage: West Virginia

WVU Defense vs. FSU Offense

Florida State's enigma on offense is that it has been near the top of the ACC in nearly every statistical category, yet has been unable to convert key plays in games. That has led to three losses by seven points or less, including the opener against Miami that set the tone for the season. The Seminoles, which lost starting quarterback Christian Ponder for the final three games, will again start freshman E.J. Manuel. The 6-4, 223-pounder has two scores against six picks and has pressed a bit, especially against athletic, blitzing foes. He has a 121.16 efficiency rating after completing 52 of 82 passes for 628 yards. The ‘Noles have not been able to stretch foes vertically with Manuel, whose longest completion is 43 yards. His passing numbers are only that good because of all the throwing Florida State has had to do in an attempt to rally in games. FSU has failed completely to score on nine of 49 trips inside the red zone, a nearly 20 percent rate or even putting up three points. Manuel has the ability to get out of the pocket and make plays, but he wouldn't be considered as good of a scrambler as Jarrett Brown, and the FSU staff has tried to protect him with easy passes and the running game. That's put added pressure on the line and tailback Jermaine Thomas, who has rushed for 711 yards and seven TDs this season. Thomas will see almost all the carries at the spot as he is backed by a freshman. Fullback Lonnie Pryor is also a freshman, and primarily a blocker in head-coach-to-be Jimbo Fisher's offense. The Clarksburg, W.Va. native is listed above only fellow Mountain State native Rick Trickett on the staff, and Trickett is one of four coaches who will be retained by Fisher.

Trickett's line has been solid but not spectacular this year. Led by guard Rodney Hudson – who is listed as questionable for the contest with a knee injury – the line has helped FSU average 6.4 yards per play, a better rate than West Virginia. Hudson (6-2, 285 lbs.) originally committed to WVU, then switched his commitment when Trickett moved to Tallahassee. An All-ACC pick, Hudson mans the left guard slot. Tackle Andrew Datko (6-6, 283 lbs.) is a load to get around on the same side, making the duo one of the best left sides in the ACC. Center Ryan McMahon has considerable experience, and so the staff will typically try to run more plays to that side. A pair of sophomores start on the right side. Tight end Beau Reliford might be the most difficult match-up along the line, as the 6-7, 241-pounder mans a slot with which West Virginia often has difficulty defending. Add in his size and length, and this could be an offensive issue. Reliford, a sophomore, isn't among the team's top five pass catchers in receptions, yardage or scores but he will be a tough draw for whichever Mountaineer has to cover him, and the natural pass patterns run by tight ends allow them to hit seams and crosses against a defense – a weakness of the odd stack.

Top wideouts Bert Reed and Rod Owens have 58 catches each for 710 and 692 yards each, respectively. Reed, shockingly, has no touchdowns, though he is a solid possession type. Owens is the deep threat, with a 98 yarder this season. Neither is taller than 6-0, though, and so jump balls, especially against West Virginia safety Robert Sands (6-2) should not be a concern. FSU's tallest starting wideout is Jarmon Fortson (6-3, 223 lbs.). He has 41 catches for 531 yards and the team's best average per catch at 13.1. The Seminole receivers have the obvious South Florida speed and athleticism, but lack the height and stride of many past FSU receivers. West Virginia needs to get pressure on the pocket and try to confuse Manuel, who will be facing the 3-3-5 for the first time. The running game should be able to be stalemated by the Mountaineers even without Scooter Berry, who will miss the game because of academics. The real threat is the tight end and crossing plays by the receivers. But those do take some time to develop, and so pressure will ease that burden as well. Look for Florida State to score more effectively than it has in the red zone in past chances, if only because it's hard to be any worse, and to try and up Manuel's options because of the increased preparation time. This is another match-up on paper that favors West Virginia, but we'll go with even here.

By The Numbers
West Virginia Florida State
Scoring Defense 20.8 ppg Scoring Offense 29.8 ppg
Rushing Defense 118.4 ypg Rushing Offense 143.2 ypg
Passing Defense 211.6 ypg Passing Offense 278.8 ypg

Advantage: Even

WVU Special Teams vs. FSU Special Teams

The Mountaineers seem to have advantages in every special teams area save punt returns, where the Seminoles almost double them up in average. WVU is netting nine yards per return, with FSU getting more than 16 yards a runback to lead the ACC. Greg Reid is a major concern as he averages more than 18 yards and has one 68-yarder for a score. Scott Kozlowski will need to direct kicks effectively, and perhaps consistently put the ball out of bounds to prevent chances. Kozlowski, while punting 20 more times than ‘Nole counterpart Shawn Powell, is averaging a full three yards more per punt, and has better across-the-board numbers in 50-plus yard kicks, kicks downed inside the 20 and other stats. Some of those are obvious dependent upon game situation and fluctuate, like anything else, according to strategy. Still, chalk this one up to the Mountaineers. The kick return numbers and talent are almost identical, but FSU has covered a bit better. West Virginia has remedied some of that, but staying in lanes and showcasing the physical toughness to break wedges and get through and off blocks looms as an obstacle even against a team that rates ninth in their conference in returns.

WVU has a clear advantage in placekicking with Tyler Bitancurt. Bitancurt has made 13 of 14 on the season, while FSU freshman Dustin Hopkins has converted 15 of 22 chances – but just seven of 13 from 40-plus yards. His leg strength is sufficient, but the kicks have missed from either hash and sailed wide of both sides, so the issue is consistency even before correction. The Mountaineers have performed better, but have also come close to having a few kicks blocked. Good line play will be key. This column goes to West Virginia, but the Seminoles have the ability to make a game-changing play.

By The Numbers
West Virginia Florida State
Net Punting 39.1 yards per punt Net Punting 36.0 yards per punt
KO Returns 22.1 yards per return KO Returns 20.5 yards per return
Punt Returns 9.6 yards per return Punt Returns 16.8 yards per return

Advantage: West Virginia


On Offense: Jarrett Brown, Noel Devine.

On Defense: Robert Sands, Josh Taylor.


West Virginia has executed better throughout the season in almost all phases than has Florida State, and frankly has more talent at positions like quarterback, tailback, place kicker and punter. Both teams' offensive lines have been average, and this isn't the typical FSU defensive front seven. The Seminoles do have a decent deep threat and their tight end has size. But with a freshman quarterback facing an odd defensive look in his fourth career collegiate start combined with a WVU team that is finally healthy and a Mountaineer offense that has found some ball control mix with its big play ability (albeit less of late), the only edge FSU has is an emotional one. And that usually evaporates with the initial contact. The ‘Noles finally lose a Gator Bowl, and WVU picks up win number two in Jacksonville and number five in a row.

WVU – 27 FSU - 17

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