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 web site http://thesignalcaller.com.
ORLANDO, Fla. - Here are five questions West Virginia needs to answer before teeing it up for the 2010 Champs Sports Bowl:
1. Can West Virginia's offensive line protect Geno Smith?
Against a Wolfpack defense that ranks fourth in the nation in sacks (39), protecting the passer could be trickier than holding up a tumbling duplex. NCSU Defensive Coordinator Mike Archer has been around the block, including an extended stay as the Steelers' LBs coach in the late 90s where he coached all-pros Jason Gildon and Levon Kirkland. As such, Archer is no stranger to the type of exotic looks that can make a quarterback's head spin.
Expect West Virginia to try to keep the State off balance with a wide variety of throws and protections ranging from 3-step timing packages (getting the ball out fast) to controlled roll outs and max protected two and three man routes downfield to help with a retooled line that will be playing without starting center Joe Madsen. These are the types of throws that will help keep Geno out of harm's way and give the Mountaineer offense an opportunity to establish a much needed rhythm. The key will be avoiding sacks and other negative yardage plays, which leads us to our second question …
2. Can the Mountaineers stay in manageable third downs?
To do so, steering clear of negative yardage plays and penalties is an absolute must. Against a pass rush as overwhelming as NC State's, many offensive linemen are often caught off guard by the speed of the rush. In desperation they reach or grab which ultimately leads to a costly penalty. That’s most easily avoided by anticipation and proper footwork. West Virginia ranks first in the Big East and 14th in the nation in penalty avoidance, averaging fewer than five per game overall. It's that kind of discipline that can contribute to success in this area.
Achieving favorable scenarios on third down of course means making a dent on first and/or second down, and that's tough to do if you can't run the football to at least some effect. This doesn't mean you have to rack up 250 yards on the ground, it simply means you have to be able to pop a few yards when needed. The Wolfpack are 12th in the country against the run and have allowed a mere 3.3 yards per carry. More alarming than that is NC State's No. 4 ranking nationally in tackles for loss. All of this speaks to the fact that this is a unit that is incredibly dominant at the point of attack.
When facing a defense as disruptive as the Wolfpack's, winning a down sometimes simply means avoiding a loss of yardage. Put another way, State has averaged 7.83 TFLs per game. That's nearly eight times per game that an opposing offensive coordinator has been forced to tweak his play selection to compensate for lost yardage. You can't allow that if you hope to reach manageable third downs. The easiest way to avoid this when rushing the football is a steady dose of old fashioned, north-south running. No dancing. No bobbing and weaving. The ball carrier needs to be savvy enough to understand that every play won't be a home run. Sometimes you have to cut your losses. Simply pick your hole and hit it. If there is no hole then bury your shoulder in the pile and push. Don't get greedy and start jitterbugging - not against a defense like this one. Ask any offensive coordinator and they will tell you that they have a lot more options on their call sheet for a second down and 9 or 10 than they do for a second and 13.
It should be noted that Noel Devine has gained 961 yards rushing this year, but he's also lost 75 yards. That is exactly the kind of thing that will need to be minimized against an NC State defense that thrives on lost yardage plays.
3. How big of an impact will Brandon Hogan's absence have?
There's no way to candy coat this one. Hogan's absence will be felt in a big way. He's a next level talent and he occupies a position that will be critical against a passing attack as explosive as North Carolina State's. With Russell Wilson scrambling around and firing missiles toward a host of explosive, veteran targets such as senior WRs Jarvis Williams (127 career grabs) and Owen Spencer (19.5 yards per catch in his career), Hogan is exactly the type of player Jeff Casteel would love to have covering ground on the backend.
With Hogan out, redshirt freshman Broderick Jenkins will be called upon to earn his Gold & Blue badge of courage. That hardly makes things look bleak. Jenkins (14 tackles and two pass breakups) has seen considerable action this year and looks to have a bright future in Morgantown. Besides which, the last time a Mountaineer freshman corner was pressed into action in a bowl game things worked out pretty well for WVU. Remember Keith Tandy's opportunistic performance against Hakeem Nicks and the UNC Tar Heels in the 2008 Meineke Car Care Bowl?
4. Which team's struggling kickoff return unit will deliver?
The Wolfpack and Mountaineers have shared equal difficulties in this area. NSCU ranks 111th in the nation with an 18.65 yard average per return. Right behind them at No. 112 is West Virginia with an 18.53 average. Both teams had high hopes for their return units heading into the season. The Wolfpack were once again handing the duties over to T.J. Graham, a junior playmaker with a pair of touchdown returns and school records on his resume for single game (202) and single season (1,028) return yardage. West Virginia, meanwhile, had no shortage of weapons either. In addition to dynamo Tavon Austin (25.6 yard return avg. and 1 TD in 2009), the Mountaineers were looking for senior playmakers Noel Devine and Jock Sanders to play a prominent role in the return game as well.
That said, somehow neither program has achieved the big play success it hoped for in this phase, leaving us to wonder which team might actually have the advantage. My gut tells me the edge goes to West Virginia, not so much for their return team, but for their much improved coverage unit. After ranking toward the bottom of the nation in kickoff coverage in 2008 and 2009, the Mountaineers improved to 35th this year. That could be pivotal. If you don't think a sound coverage unit plays a key role in a bowl game just throw in the tape of last year's Gator Bowl when Florida State's Greg Reid busted the opening kickoff of the second half 69 yards to set up a score that gave the Seminoles a lead they would not relinquish.
When someone says last but not least they’re often just being rhetorical. That's not the case here. I've saved what I genuinely believe to be the most critical matchup question in this game for last.
5. Can West Virginia contain a mobile quarterback as dynamic as Russell Wilson?
NC State's Russell Wilson is a bona fide dual threat playmaker under center, ranking 11th in the nation in total offense (307 ypg.) including 394 yards on the ground and nine rushing TDs. Both of those figures in the running game represent the greatest production by any quarterback the Mountaineers have faced this year. But the numbers don't tell the whole story. Wilson has made good defenses look bad and bad defenses look worse. The book on Wilson is his escapability. The crack between the keys is his knack for bolting from pocket traffic to extend plays, sometimes choosing to tuck it and run and other times looking to fire downfield. As dangerous as Wilson is inside the pocket, he's even more lethal when he breaks outside of it.
There are unique considerations when playing a mobile quarterback. Even something as basic as when and if to blitz can become a tricky proposition. Against a team that's struggled to protect the passer as much as NC State has (104th nationally in sacks allowed) the knee jerk reaction of many defense's might simply be to put their ears back and go for broke with a steady diet of pressure. The problem with running a true blitz scheme against guys like Wilson, however, is that to do so at some point you will have to incorporate a dose of man coverage into the equation. Why is that an issue? Because in man coverage all second and third level defenders (the non-blitzing linebackers and defensive backs) take off downfield on the hip of the receiver they're locked up with, leaving their backs to the line of scrimmage. This of course opens the defense up to the possibility that if the QB breaks free from the blitz and takes off he might be 20 yards or more downfield before the secondary even realizes what’s happened.
Jeff Casteel's defenses have often struggled against mobile quarterbacks. Past efforts against the likes of Matt Grothe and B.J. Daniels (USF), E.J. Manuel (Florida State) and even Zach Collaros (Cincinnati) come to mind. But things have had a different feel in 2010. That was evidenced by the way West Virginia stuffed Daniels and Collaros in games earlier this year, limiting them to a combined negative 22 yards rushing and 340 yards passing while picking off five passes and allowing no TDs.
The biggest thing Casteel has working in his favor this time around is a defense populated by veterans that understand the game and appreciate situational football. For instance, if a Mountaineer defensive end or linebacker is asked to set the edge and keep containment you can take it to the bank that - more often than not - that's exactly what they will do. This was the issue the Mountaineers had against Florida State’s Manuel in the Gator Bowl and in last year’s loss to Daniels and the Bulls in Tampa. In both cases, against athletic quarterbacks WVU failed to keep them contained between the tackles. Many of the biggest plays West Virginia yielded in each of those games came when the QBs hit the perimeter.
That’s what the Mountaineers can’t allow against Wilson, and that’s often easier said than done. Even battle-tested defenders have been known to get burned a time or two by trying to spin toward an open crease they might see to the inside on what is designed to be an outside rush. The next thing you know the quarterback breaks free from the pocket and you’ve already lost on the play. A veteran pass rusher or blitzer off the edge needs to understand that there are sometimes more important things at play than merely pressuring the passer. They should recognize that they have to come in under control and that they can't afford to let a player like Wilson break outside. That might mean passing up a tempting pass rushing lane to the inside to instead maintain the outside edge and keep the quarterback contained.
It's the little things - the nuances - that matter against a player as dynamic as Russell Wilson and WVU's defense seems more equipped now than ever to be mindful of such details.
See you at the fifty.
Note: Later today be sure to watch the Champs Sports Bowl Report, presented by the West Virginia Lottery.
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