HOT READSBy for WVUsports.com
September 01, 2010 11:07 AM
MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for MSNsportsNET.com. You can also read more about Mountaineer football at Jed’s new web site http://thesignalcaller.com.
I finally saw Inception a few weeks ago.
After a month of hearing it hailed as the can’t miss movie event of the summer, and having a dozen friends zealously describe it to me as the cinematic equivalent to sliced bread, I at long last found the time to take the plunge and go see it.
It was ... okay.
I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Let me preface this by pointing out that I’m a big fan of director Christopher Nolan. Nevertheless, as the final credits rolled I actually left the theater thinking it was maybe Nolan’s third or fourth best film. Pretty good, but not spectacular. But here’s the rub. By the time I finally saw Inception, the fanfare and hoopla had already set the bar so impossibly high there was simply no way for it to provide me with an experience as phenomenal as I was hoping for.
Might I have felt more strongly about the movie had I seen it closer to its release, before all the hype raised my expectations? Maybe. But I’ll never know.
I tell you this not because I’m hoping to land my own critic’s corner deal, but to make a basic point and that is, the best things in life are often the most unexpected. After all, when you really consider it, high expectations sometimes serve only to poison a situation.
Take for instance West Virginia’s season-opening win over Liberty University last year.
When the Flames came to town last Labor Day weekend most fans saw little more than an FCS punching bag in a white jersey and anticipated a 40-point romp. Blinded by preconceived expectations, not many folks noticed that Liberty was riding the crest of the first 10-win season in school history and that the team’s head man, Danny Rocco, had already captured back-to-back Big South Conference Coach of the Year honors (Rocco actually went on to win a third straight last year).
As such, when South Carolina transfer Tommy Beecher connected with Liberty’s Mike Brown on a 20-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to tie the game at 10, the crowd at Mountaineer Field let out a collective groan. This wasn’t the type of game they had signed up for.
|Jarrett Brown led West Virginia to a 33-20 victory over Liberty in last year's season opener.
Brian Persinger photo
When Jarrett Brown’s third down pass sailed incomplete at the Liberty 19 late in the third quarter, the crowd didn’t groan – it gasped. West Virginia, after all, was forced for the fourth time to settle for a Tyler Bitancurt field goal after marching deep into Liberty territory. As a result the Mountaineers carried a modest 26-13 lead into the final 15 minutes of play.
When the WVU offense began the fourth quarter with a three-and-out, the natives were once again restless. A Robert Sands interception followed by a 38-yard strike from Brown to Jock Sanders, and a quick 24-yard TD scamper by Noel Devine temporarily eased the tension as West Virginia extended its lead to a more palatable 33-13.
Fans pulling for WVU to finish in a flurry with a final score that might look sexier on a national ticker, however, had that hope dashed a few moments later. Liberty gobbled up six of the final seven minutes with a drive that was capped off by a meaningless touchdown run by Mike Brown, putting the end result at an unremarkable 33-20.
The question now turns to this Saturday as some fans find themselves wondering exactly what type of game to expect against Coastal Carolina, a Big South Conference member of the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision. Will the 2010 Mountaineers deliver a demolition or a dud?
To answer that question we need to hold this game up to the light and inspect it from all angles. For example, since 2002 West Virginia has played six FCS teams, winning all six of those meetings in Morgantown by an average score of 45-12, including last year’s victory over Liberty. In those six games, WVU held an average halftime lead of 25-3 (including three first half shutouts) and outgained the opposition by a clip of 487 total yards to 235. Two more overwhelming advantages the Mountaineers have enjoyed in those six games have been in the areas of ball security and third down success. West Virginia has posted a plus-nine margin in turnover ratio in those half dozen games while converting an eye-popping 65% of third down attempts and holding opponents to a success rate of less than half that, 31.7% to be exact.
Here’s the interesting part: all six of the FCS teams West Virginia has played since 2002 had a won-loss record the previous year of at least .500. Coastal Carolina does not. The Chanticleers finished last season with an overall mark of 5-6, including a 58-13 loss to Liberty (yes, that Liberty) in which the Flames exploded for 42 second-half points and outgained Coastal Carolina 575 yards to 175.
Optimistic fans would point out that CCU hasn’t posted a winning record since 2006 and that they’ve been shutout at least once in each of the last two seasons. Coastal Carolina has, however, journeyed into the hostile confines of major college football before, and if you’re wondering what the floor plans to a lopsided win over the Chanticleers might look like you don’t have to do much digging to find out. In 2008 CCU travelled to Happy Valley where they were summarily bombed 66-10 by a No. 22-ranked Penn state Squad. The Nittany Lions raced to a 38-7 halftime lead before shifting into cruise control and finishing with 594 total yards including 334 on the ground. Last Halloween, the Chanticleers visited Death Valley where they were upended 49-3 by Clemson. The Tigers ran roughshod for 252 rushing yards despite the fact that Clemson’s all-world back, C.J. Spiller, only touched the ball five times. Early lead, big rushing numbers ... feel free to stop me when you see a pattern emerging here.
Then of course there's the pragmatic crowd. This would include those of you hoping to draw from specific, empirical factors that might prevent the Chanticleers from pulling off their best Liberty impersonation this weekend and hanging tough at Mountaineer Field. If so, consider the following:
With the stage set, let me offer up a few points to ponder as we approach kickoff against a CCU team that most pundits expect West Virginia to beat like it stole something. First of all, understand that the Chanticleers are a senior-laden squad that won’t step off the team bus waving the white flag. They’ll make some plays. Expect it, embrace it and move on. Bridle your frustration if the Mountaineers don’t explode out of the giant inflatable helmet for a huge early lead. The game sometimes takes a few series or more to assume some kind of ebb and flow, even against FCS competition.
|Pat White's five TD passes against Villanova helped overcome a slow start against the Wildcats.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
Remember West Virginia’s 2004 win over James Madison – a team that eventually captured the FCS national title that season? The game was still scoreless after a full quarter of play, despite the fact the Mountaineers had run 21 plays from scrimmage in the first 15 minutes. In the end it all worked out in the form of a 45-10 WVU win. For that matter, think back to West Virginia’s 48-21 thrashing of Villanova - another FCS opponent - in 2008. The Wildcats were controlling things in the early going and had actually managed to take 21 of the game’s first 26 offensive snaps. Then, suddenly, a John Holmes sack forced a fumble that Mortty Ivy returned 30 yards to put the Mountaineers in business at the Nova 24. On the next play Pat White threw his first of a record-setting five touchdown passes and West Virginia never looked back.
Backbreaking defensive plays such as that one can often spark a team in games like this because it throws a wrench into the underdog squad’s strategy of shortening the game and limiting the favored team’s opportunities on offense. Make no mistake about it, that’s exactly what Coastal Carolina will be trying to do. There’s no secret to the tactics used by FCS squads when they visit a venue like Mountaineer Field. It’s the same story whether they’re heading into Morgantown, Columbus or Tuscaloosa.
That might especially ring true with a Coastal Carolina team that played pretty spotty football a year ago. In the Chants five victories they moved the ball at a torrid pace, finishing with yardage totals of 410, 414, 418, 473 and 489. In defeat they were abysmal, averaging a mere nine points per game and being held to 185 or fewer yards in four of six losses. What does such an extreme trend of ‘all-or-nothing’ reveal about head coach David Bennett’s squad? It belies a football team that struggles mightily when forced out of its comfort zone. In other words, when CCU is able to stick with its plan they maintain a pretty well oiled operation. On the flipside, when something flies left of center and a couple early turnovers or a quick deficit blindsides CCU with some adversity they don’t respond well. When the Chanticleers are forced to stray from the script they have a track record of unraveling pretty quickly.
Offensively Coastal Carolina will step onto the field Saturday intent on milking the clock. Even if they go three-and-out they’ll want it to be a lingering and time-consuming three-and-out. Don’t be surprised if you see the Chanticleers taking the play clock inside five seconds from the very first time they get the ball. Doing so has the effect of not just frustrating the home crowd but also exasperating the opposing offense that’s stuck on the sidelines watching.
Defensively they will look to utilize enough smoke and mirrors to force a punt or two right off the top, raising the premium on early possessions for West Virginia. CCU will try to do this with the belief that with each passing minute the Mountaineers will feel more pressed and might in desperation ultimately stray from their own game plan. The Chanticleers hope will be that in an effort to gain some swagger with a quick score WVU might feel compelled to run some things they are less comfortable with, increasing the likelihood of the Mountaineers perhaps turning the ball over.
The question of course is: how does WVU avoid springing these traps? A big play or two in the first few minutes would be nice, but the path of least resistance more likely involves winning on first down on both sides of the ball. If West Virginia’s defense can force CCU into a steady diet of 2nd-and-9s that can readily translate into a lot of 3rd and longs, which of course would be a big advantage for a Mountaineer unit frothing at the mouth over any chance to put its ears back and apply pressure. Another housekeeping item the WVU defense needs to be mindful of in its efforts to get the Chanticleers off the field quickly will be in the area of senseless penalties. A year ago Liberty successfully converted only four third down attempts against West Virginia all day, and three of them were the direct result of infractions called against Mountaineer defenders (two personal fouls and one pass interference). Third down defensive penalties are tantamount to turnovers and they absolutely must be avoided when trying to put a team away early.
On the offensive side if WVU can consistently grab four or five yards on first down the Mountaineers could enjoy a big day. First down success would mean that sophomore signal caller Geno Smith will benefit not only from very manageable third down situations in his first career start, but also from a wider selection of play action opportunities on second down.
If the Mountaineers can check off the three boxes discussed above, the game breaking plays will almost certainly follow. And then, who knows ... Maybe West Virginia can bang out an opening day blockbuster that even Inception fans will appreciate.
Big 12 Championship Report 4
WVU Baseball Experience in Moore, Okla.
Big 12 Championship Report 3
Mountaineers Speak on CNN
Big 12 Championship Report 2
Big 12 Championships Report