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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Opponent preview: West Virginia

We've done Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State, now it's time for the Take Me Home, Country Roads version of our opponent previews. That's right, West Virginia and Pat White-less Mountaineers.

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West Virginia Mountaineers
  • Head coach: Bill Stewart (2nd season at WVU, 10-4; 6th overall, 18-29)
  • 2008 record: 9-4, (5-2 Big East, t-2nd), beat North Carolina 31-30 in Meineke Car Care Bowl
  • Returning starters: 12 (5 offense, 7 defense)
  • Total offense: 360.4 (5th Big East, 59th nationally)
  • Total defense: 328.9 (6th Big East, 36th nationally)
  • Series: West Virginia leads series 1-0
  • Last meeting: West Virginia won 34-17 last year in Morgantown, W.Va.
  • Consensus prediction: First place in the Big East
Five-week schedule glimpse
  • Sept. 5: Liberty
  • Sept. 12: East Carolina
  • Sept. 19: at Auburn
  • Oct. 1: Colorado
  • Oct. 10: at Syracuse
Despite a 4-2 record, nothing really clicked last year for West Virginia until Auburn strolled into town and built a 17-3. That's when Pat White, who had been plagued by injuries all year, turned into the Pate White everyone expected him to be. The senior threw for three touchdowns in the game and Noel Devine ran wild for 207 yards as the Mountaineers rallied for a big Thursday night win, driving a stake through the heart of the Tommy Tuberville regime in the process. WVU would win four of six coming down the stretch, including a thriller in the Meineke Car Care Bowl to send White in style. Now he's gone, and the Mountaineers will have to deal with life in the post-superstar era, not an easy transition for a lot of teams.

To get the scoop, I went to Mike Casazza of the Charleston Daily Mail, who answered in great detail, which we at the blog love (we also like that he makes references to The Usual Suspects and a certain legendary North American man-ape). You can find more of Mike's work on his WVU blog here and at the Daily Mail's main sports site here.

AB: After four years, 10,000 yards, more than 100 touchdowns accounted for and 34 wins, including an NCAA-record four bowl victories, quarterback Pat White's West Virginia career is finally over. There will obviously be a drop off in play from one of the best players in Big East history to his replacement, Jarrett Brown, but how much?
MC: A lot, and that's even if JB has a good year. Quarterback play is probably the key to this year's team, but comparisons to the predecessor are going to be unfair. First, Pat White is Pat White. Second, they're different players. JB is bigger with a stronger arm and while he can run, he's not a runner. That said, he comes along at a good time. He's seasoned, he's been patient and indications are WVU is going to be pass-first, or at least pass-prone, to take advantage of good receivers and players who are pretty skilled in space. In that view, maybe the numbers JB produces are different than Pat's, but maybe the offense is as or about as productive. To be fair, though, a lot of JB's potential rests in a mostly new offensive line and the ability to pass and run block. He's played a lot, but he's never been a guy a team game-planned for. Both of his starts have been game-time decisions and the opposing defense wasn't sure who'd be playing quarterback. And again, that matters because they were different players. Maybe the play calls didn't change, but they did different things in different ways. For the first time, teams will be prepping for JB. He'll have to adjust to that.
AB: Will running back Noel Devine (1,289 yards, 4 TDs) be the focal point of the offense this season or will the Mountaineers alter their offensive focus to better utilize Brown's throwing abilities? And are all the skill position questions moot if West Virginia doesn't find some answers — and quickly — on an offensive line that lost four of the five players who started most of last season, including All-American tackle Ryan Stanchek?
MC: Ideally, WVU would be a 50-50 run-pass team. They want to set up the plays they want to call second-and-short, third-and-short, run when the defense expects pass, pass when the defense expects run. It'll be interesting to see how they get into those situations. They threw the ball a lot in the spring, though part of that was to preserve Noel, get JB comfortable and bring along the offensive line. It worked pretty well and they feel good about their receivers and tight end. Noel's value is in touches and total yards. He'll carry the ball, but not as much as Steve Slaton, and he'll also catch passes. He can't be a 25-carry-a game guy and get through the season healthy and productive, but he's too good with the ball in his hands not to get the ball in his hands. In that regard, sure, he's a focal point. Defenses know that, though, so the offense is going to spread it around. In addition to the known receivers, they have some pretty intriguing freshmen, especially Tavon Austin, that they really want to incorporate into the offense. They also think they have some good running backs to spell Noel or to provide a different look. As you say, though, it's about the offensive line and if they can find the right five right away to get things going.
AB: The Mountaineers return seven defensive starters from last year's squad, and could add much-hyped junior college transfer Tevita Finau to the mix if he clears the necessary academic hurdles. What are the keys for this group taking a step toward being a formidable defense?
MC: Finau's already reached a mythical status here. He's part Keyser Sose, part Bigfoot. People talk about him in these epic tones, but no one's ever seen him. He's not here yet despite promises he'd be here in late-June. But we're pretty sure he's a real person and we're told all those academic hurdles are cleared. It appears he just got caught up in a paperwork shuffle. Yet even if he's here when camp starts next weekend, he hasn't played in a long, long time, he hasn't practiced with the Mountaineers and a very demanding, very good defensive line coach, Bill Kirelawich, and he's immediately behind two good defensive ends in Larry Ford and Julian Miller, who give WVU a nice pass-rushing platoon. Point being, he's not the key to the defense and, realistically, you can't expect a whole lot from him at the beginning. If he develops to or close to his potential, then it's a major bonus because that defense is going to be good. They key for them is continuity, which they already have. They have three starters on the line and some key backups for what is the key to the defense. Their linebackers might be as collectively fast as anyone else in the country and they have depth there, too. Same at the safety spots. WVU starts three safeties one's a hybrid linebacker-safety but they've all started, they all play different safety spots and there's depth there, as well. The concern is at cornerback, where they think Brandon Hogan is an NFL talent, but they have two or three guys who will continue to battle on the other side. If they can find their best lineups early, keep them on the field as much as possible and build those groups, watch out. Their bottom line statistic is points allowed. They give up yards and they sometimes struggle with third down conversions, but their red zone defense was great last year and teams had a hard time scoring on them. There's a certain mental strength there and that only grows with experience. You'd figure the physical part would come along and they'd find ways to get off the field and force some more turnovers.
AB: West Virginia ranked third to last nationally in kickoff coverage last year. Plus, it lost second-team All-American kicker/punter Pat McAfee, who was in contention for both the Ray guy and Lou Groza awards last season. Could special teams be one of the most overlooked concerns on this team?
MC: Well, it's not overlooked here. It's a really, really touchy subject, especially because last year's failures were so unexpected. Stewart doubles as the special teams coach and they've regularly ranked among the best teams in the country with special teams. They do really well in things like net punting and even punt and kick return offense, but their kickoff coverage was just bad last year. How bad? Cincinnati's Mardy Gilyard studied WVU on tape before their game last year, predicted he'd break one against something he'd spotted and then brought the opening kick back for a touchdown. It was that kind of season. To be fair, WVU was without it's best kickoff cover guy most of the season and the numbers when he was in were dramatically different than when he was out. By the way, he graduated. They had some other injuries and personnel changes and while not as significant, it was hard to plug guys in and ask them to help out a troubled group. They pressed and missed assignments and tackles last year. This will absolutely be a focus for the team and I just can't imagine them not getting better ... maybe because they can't get much worse. Punting isn't a major concern because they really like Scott Kozlowski, who was one of the best in the country three years ago before he shanked a punt against Louisville that was returned for a touchdown in a game WVU lost. He hasn't kicked since, but was good in the spring. Kickoffs and field goals are going to be a concern because they don't know who or what they have yet. They'll figure that out in camp, but it's between no less than four guys.
AB: The Mountaineers moved quickly to remove the interim tag on Bill Stewart following Rich Rodriguez's departure to Michigan a year and a half ago. What is the general feeling of West Virginia fans about handing him the reins to the program, and now that Stewart is starting to recruit his own players, can he continue to build on the program's success under Rodriguez?
MC: General feeling? Probably mixed. People still wonder if Stewart would have been a candidate if they lost to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl they had plans to talk to and revisit other coaches immediately after that game. Nine wins wasn't enough for a lot of people last year, but a lot of people also realize that team wasn't good enough to justify its preseason ranking they lost Slaton, Owen Schmitt, Darius Reynaud, Johnny Dingle, Marc Magro, Larry Williams, Vaugh Rivers, Eric Wicks, Ryan Mundy and Antonio Lews and Reed Williams ended up taking a medical redshirt. That's 11 valuable players from the team that smoked Oklahoma, which means 11 new players who had to be valuable and frankly didn't have it in them early on against East Carolina and Colorado. I think the fact the offenses wasn't as prolific as people had grown accustom to was used as the biggest negative against Stewart and his coaching staff, almost as if they had no clue what to do with what they had. OK, they didn't have anywhere near the points and yards as they did the year before, but, again, there are reasons, none bigger than simple transition. It's not magic. It's a process. That process is looking better now, though. Last year's recruiting class was among the best ever at WVU and a lot of people think this year's will be even better. That has people excited, especially as they get commitments from big-time quarterbacks, running backs and receivers, which restores hope to return to that explosive offense. Stewart's a leader. He gets his guys and he gets them to march with him. That's his strength, whether it be with players or coaches, and it'll allow him to build. Whether it happens like it did with Rich doesn't matter. Like Pat and JB, Rich and Stewart are different. I guess now we'll see who's better, but the pieces are at least coming together for Stewart as he begins his second year.
NCAA '10 on the PlayStation3 says ... West Virginia 24, Auburn 13. The Mountaineers enter the game riding high, ranked 20th in the country, and thanks to backup running back Mark Rodgers' big day (145 rushing yards, 2 total TDs), they stay that way. Burns reels off a 77-yard touchdown run in the second quarter that Rodgers matches in the third quarter, going 64 yards. Auburn gets as close as 17-13 in the fourth quarter on two Wes Byrum field goals, but Rodgers scores on a 15-yard pass from Jarrett Brown to seal the deal. Noel Devine finishes with only 67 rushing yards, but he adds 83 receiving yards to his total. Ben Tate goes for 135 yards and Burns, thanks to his long run, adds 106, but the passing game struggles for the first time. Burns finished 10-for-27 for only 77 yards.

Up next: A team that's in major rebuilding mode after nearly running the table last season Ball State.


notabanker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
notabanker said...

Personally, I feel Auburn should win this game. I'm not impressed with West Va.'s head coach at all. I think without White their offense will be anemic. They will only be able to rely on Devine intervention when it comes to big plays...and with a running back that small...I don't expect him to finish the season injury free. I say Auburn wins 20-12