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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Auburn-West Virginia preview

Finally, we have another game to talk about. Bye weeks are nice and all, but when you get in the flow of a season, 11 days between games feels like an eternity.

I’m looking forward to visiting Morgantown, W.Va. Though I spent almost 7 years in Virginia and made a couple trips through the state of West Virginia, I’ve never covered a game there. It should be an experience. A cold experience.

Anyway, I don’t depart until tomorrow. Early flight, 8:30 a.m., which means I have to leave Auburn around 4 to get there (stupid time change). I hope to blog some from the stadium, but deadline is going to be really tight with a 7:30 p.m. EST start. Check back tomorrow for some more updates.

Without further adieu, let’s break this game down:

  • Although he isn’t necessarily a reporter’s dream as an interview subject, Pat White is one heck of a quarterback. Defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads compared White’s athletic ability with Michael Vick’s. That’s pretty select company. White needs 356 yards to be the NCAA’s all-time quarterback rushing leader. (Former Mizzou star and current New York Jet Brad Smith holds the record with 4,289 yards). And White has put up those numbers in 236 fewer carries. So tune in Thursday night. It really will be a chance to watch one of the uniquely gifted quarterbacks in NCAA history. (Here's hoping that West Virginia breaks out the all-gold jerseys tomorrow night too. Those things are entrancing.)
  • That said, something is clearly amiss with the West Virginia offense. Yes, White has been injured the last few weeks, hurting the thumb of his throwing hand against Marshall on Sept. 27 and suffering a concussion against Rutgers on Oct. 4 that forced him to miss the Syracuse game a week and a half ago. But the Mountaineers struggled prior to those injuries. They scored 3 points against East Carolina, when the Pirates were everyone’s darlings. The next week, they scored 14 points in an overtime loss to Colorado. While White has been solid, he hasn’t been as spectacular as usual, with one 100-yard rushing game this year (he reached 97 in another). It makes me wonder how big of a deal it is that Rich Rodriguez is not there coaching the team anymore. He was the driving force behind that offense.
  • I wonder what West Virginia fans really think about new head coach Bill Stewart. There was a lot of mud-slinging when Rodriguez left for Michigan (remember him destroying all his player files before he left and WVU holding him to the $4 million buyout, as it should have). Stewart seems like a nice guy and was clearly a popular choice right after the Mountaineers upset Oklahoma in last season’s Fiesta Bowl. The school was probably guarding against a coach leaving for greener pastures again, so the fact that he was a West Virginia native had to help his cause. But he got a 6-year contract at $800,000 a year for that one win. It makes you wonder.
  • Interesting article in the Charleston Daily Mail a few weeks ago comparing Stewart to former Miami coach Larry Coker. Coker had plenty of success riding Butch Davis’s coattails to a national championship, but once that well of Davis’ players went dry, Coker struggled to keep the ’Canes competitive. Just look at the mess Randy Shannon inherited down there. I’m sure Mountaineers fans hope their situation works out a little better.
  • I mentioned it in a couple stories earlier this week, but it bears repeating: West Virginia is 13-1 in home night games since 2000. Its one loss? To Pittsburgh and a Paul Rhoads-coached defense last season.
  • All right, enough West Virginia. How about some Auburn? What will the offense look like tomorrow? It’s honestly hard to tell. For weeks, all we’ve heard about is how the Tigers are simplifying their playbook, weeding out plays that don’t work and committing to a smash-mouth game. They always claim to be right on the cusp, yet they’ve shown little or no improvement in games. What gives? I don’t know. I’m not a football coach (despite my annual success in the NCAA football games on PlayStation). But I would guess that with a new quarterback this season – whoever that quarterback was going to be – Auburn was going to struggle regardless of what offense it was running. I think Kodi Burns will be good given time. But he’s going to have to be allowed to fail and work through his mistakes. I wonder if the coaches will finally give him that chance.
  • Re: the Barrett Trotter situation: I, and, according to the poll on the right, plenty of people out there, think it would be foolish to burn his redshirt this late in the season. It’s just not a smart thing to do from a program standpoint. Say you burn the shirt on Trotter but Burns turns into the quarterback you thought he would. Suddenly, they’re one class apart. If Burns stays the starter through his senior season, Trotter would be a senior before he could assume the starting job (if he’s as good as advertised, which I have no idea about, since I’ve never seen him play). I know, I know, you can always redshirt Trotter down the line, but that becomes difficult after the freshman year. How many sophomore or junior redshirts do you see out there? And furthermore, once he gets a taste of action this year, do you think he’ll want to redshirt in the future? No, which is why I think you take whatever lumps you have to this year and keep him sidelined. Besides, do you really want to throw a true freshman into the game on the road on an ESPN-televised Thursday night in Morgantown? If you’re trying to ease him into action, this is not the place to do it.
  • I have really only come across one instance where somebody burned a redshirt this late in the season. A few years ago, Virginia’s Al Groh burned the redshirt on place-kicker Chris Gould in the 11th week of the season so Gould could handle the punting duties. Gould performed well enough for the final three games of the season, but he exhausted his eligibility last year, right when he came into his own as a kicker. This year, the Cavaliers’ place-kicking situation is a mess. It’s one of those things where I think you would rather have a full season of a guy who has been in the program for five years on the back end of his career rather than two months after he just stepped on campus. Just my $0.02.
  • I have to extend some congratulations to head coach Tommy Tuberville, who will be inducted into the Southern Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. Once a Mulerider, always a Mulerider. Here’s part of the release: “Tuberville played high school football at Harmony Grove before enrolling at SAU in 1972, where he lettered as a free safety for the Muleriders through 1975, and also played golf his final two years. He was encouraged to play college football by his father, the late C.R. Tuberville, a long-time and highly respected athletic official in the area. While at Southern Arkansas, Tuberville played under legendary head coach Raymond (Rip) Powell, and during his tenure at Ole Miss, maintained that his days at SAU were the most formative of his future career. He requested of his then position coach, and still long-time friend, Sonny Whittington, that he wanted to attend offensive team meetings as well as the defensive meetings because of his desire to coach. Tuberville credits Powell, Whittington and the rest of the Mulerider staff (Calvin Neal and Eldon Hawley) with teaching him techniques, fundamentals, and more than he ever learned at any of his other coaching stops.”

All right, this post has probably gone long enough. Here’s my prediction. I don’t think either offense gets too healthy in this one. Auburn has a fast enough defense to keep up with West Virginia, but the Mountaineers seem like they’re due for a couple long touchdown plays, even if the Tigers are well-rested after 11 days off. As for Auburn, I think the offense improves this week after the ugliness of two weeks ago (read: Tony Franklin’s firing) had time to settle in. I think the Tigers try to run the ball out of some power sets and have success doing it. But I just don’t think Auburn is good enough on that side of the ball to steal a road game at a difficult venue like Morgantown. I’ll go with West Virginia 20, Auburn 17.

To end, I’ll leave you with one of the great sideline photos of all-time. This shot was taken last year of a pair of West Virginia defensive linemen, senior Johnny Dingle and freshman Scooter Berry. You’d think they’d at least switch sides, don’t you?

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