MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Which team can hold onto the ball is the one likely to win Saturday’s football game between West Virginia and Cincinnati at Milan Puskar Stadium.
Both teams have struggled this year keeping the football - and getting it from the other team. The Bearcats (3-5) are last in the Big East in turnover margin at minus-8; Cincinnati has turned the football over 15 times in eight games while collecting a conference-low seven turnovers.
And right in front of the Bearcats is 5-3 West Virginia, with a league-worst 17 turnovers and a minus-5 turnover margin. In the Mountaineers’ three losses this season they have turned the ball over nine times, including a disappointing four in an overtime loss at Connecticut. A Ryan Clarke fumble at the goal line on West Virginia’s first possession of overtime enabled the Huskies to kick the game-winning field goal.
In all, WVU put the ball on the ground seven times against UConn, losing four, and have lost 11 fumbles so far this season. West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said the team has worked diligently on ball security during the two weeks of practice since the Connecticut game.
“You reinforce it with drills and constructive criticism,” Stewart said Tuesday.
Cincinnati coach Butch Jones has also made limiting turnovers a big focus during Cincinnati’s off-week. The Bearcats have also turned the ball over nine times in their five defeats this year, including a season-high four in its 31-29 loss to Oklahoma.
“There is no secret we’ve turned the football over and when we’ve limited our turnovers we can play with anyone,” Jones said.
The Bearcats have one of the most explosive offenses in the Big East, averaging a conference-best 425.2 yards per game. Cincinnati has topped 500 yards twice this season and had a streak of four straight games with at least 450 yards snapped in its 31-7 loss to Syracuse on Oct. 30 when starting quarterback Zach Collaros was unable to play after injuring his knee against South Florida.
Collaros threw for 463 yards and three TDs against the Bulls one week after throwing a career-high five touchdowns at Louisville. He had a pair of 300-yard passing games against NC State and Oklahoma earlier this year, and last year, Collaros threw for a career-high 480 yards in a win against UConn. Jones said he fully expects Collaros to play against West Virginia on Saturday.
“His knee is much better,” Jones said. “He had very limited reps last week in practice and that was just getting him healthy.”
Jones said they will know more at the end of this week how his knee responds to a full week of practice.
“You sit back and you wait and you see how the body responds to everything,” he admitted.
West Virginia’s defensive staff will prepare for Collaros, but they must also be aware of the things backups Chazz Anderson and Brendon Kay can do as well.
“Zach Collaros, Chazz Anderson and even Brendon Kay all do something different,” said Stewart. “They all have great skills. Collaros is one of those players who just makes plays. It’s going to be a real challenge. Our defense has not seen an offense like this.”
Cincinnati has the No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers in the Big East in Armon Binns and D.J. Woods. Binns shows 47 catches for 711 yards and nine touchdowns while Woods has 45 catches for 743 yards and seven scores. Both receivers are averaging better than 15 yards per reception.
The Bearcats also have a lethal weapon in the backfield in junior Isaiah Pead, who is averaging seven yards per rush and ran for 169 yards against Oklahoma. In last year’s win against West Virginia, it was Pead’s cut-back running that really hurt the Mountaineers. He finished the game with 175 yards on just 18 carries, scoring a touchdown and setting up another score with a 52-yard run.
Jones believes it will be important for the Bearcats to be able to run the football against West Virginia’s 3-3-5 stack defense.
“It’s going to be a challenge because they can stack the box and take away your run game and then all of a sudden, boom, they’re in drop-eight and even drop-nine coverage because of the nature of their defense,” Jones explained. “The big thing is we’ve got to be able to run the football. If they make us one dimensional we’re in for a long afternoon.”
On the other side of the ball, West Virginia is looking to revitalize a rushing attack that has slipped from the best in the Big East Conference a few years ago to middle of the pack this season. Stewart said before the Connecticut game that he wanted quarterback Geno Smith to run the football more, particularly in passing situations when teams were all-out blitzing him and leaving the outside receivers in man coverage.
Smith ran for a season-high 64 yards against the Huskies and the Mountaineers finished the game with 254 yards on the ground. Stewart said defenses must continue to respect Smith’s legs as well as his arm to open things up for Noel Devine, whose 4.8 yards-per-carry average is well below his 7.0 yards-per-carry average that he had coming into this season.
Smith said he will continue to take what defenses give him.
“Obviously teams are playing us differently than they did with Jarrett (Brown) and Pat (White),” Smith explained. “They understand that my first option is not to run so they’re taking away some of the things with Noel, and I need to relieve the pressure off of him and make defenses respect me as well.”
That may even mean tucking the football under his shoulder and running more when the linebackers fly out to help defend West Virginia’s bubble and tunnel screens. Smith said the most important thing will be for him to continue to run in an intelligent fashion.
“You need to be smart,” he said. “You can’t be out there trying to run guys over or doing senseless things. That’s putting the team in jeopardy.”
Despite a two-game stretch when Smith has thrown only one touchdown pass against Syracuse and Connecticut, he still remains the Mountaineers’ most effective offensive weapon. He has thrown for 1,696 yards and 15 touchdowns, completing 65.7 percent of his passes, though a high percentage of those completions have been right around the line of scrimmage.
Right now West Virginia’s best down-field threat is junior Brad Starks, whose 271 all-purpose yards and 20.8 yards per touch average have come in WVU’s last four games. Starks has three of West Virginia’s seven longest plays from scrimmage this season, including a 53-yard touchdown run on a reverse against Connecticut.
The Mountaineer offense has only scored five TDs in their last three games (none in the second half) after putting 49 points on the board against out-manned UNLV on Oct. 14. But Jones has seen enough of West Virginia’s offense to know it is capable of breaking out at any time.
“The thing you have to be on guard is they have the ability to score anywhere, anytime on the field,” he said. “They are going to create space and we have to be a great tackling team.”
Defense has been Cincinnati’s Achilles heel, the Bearcats giving up 24.4 points and 354.5 yards per game. Cincinnati has one of the worst pass defenses in the country, ranking 100th in pass efficiency defense and allowing 244.4 yards per game through the air. A lot of that can be attributed to youth: Cincinnati had eight sophomores starting on defense against South Florida making it one of the youngest starting defenses in college football.
Jones is certainly concerned about Smith’s ability to throw the ball to go along with the added threat of him running the ball.
“It adds another weapon,” Jones said. “He’s got a strong arm, he’s accurate, and now all of a sudden you put in a running dimension, coupled with some talented players that they have, and it makes it extremely difficult to defend.”
Cincinnati is likely to score points against West Virginia’s nationally ranked defense that has only given up nine touchdowns so far this year. The question becomes: Can the Mountaineer offense match Cincinnati’s? And, which team will be able to hold onto the football?
We’ll find out Saturday.
Tickets still remain and can be purchased by calling the Mountaineer Ticket Office toll-free at 1-800-WVU GAME or by going online at WVUGAME.com.
Kickoff is set for noon. The game will be televised by the Big East Network.
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