MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Sixteenth-ranked West Virginia opens Big East play this Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium with an interesting matchup against last season’s champ Connecticut.
Despite West Virginia winning six of seven against Connecticut since the Huskies moved up from the I-AA ranks, recent games between the two schools have been very competitive, including last year’s overtime game in Storrs when UConn won 16-13 on Dave Teggart’s 27-yard field goal.
West Virginia had an opportunity to punch in the go-ahead TD on its first possession of overtime, but fullback Ryan Clarke fumbled before he could cross the goal line. That loss cost West Virginia an opportunity to win the Big East and go to a BCS bowl, and it propelled UConn to a five-game winning streak to finish the regular season and advance to its first-ever BCS bowl appearance in school history.
“Our guys wanted that to happen (go to a BCS bowl) last year and it didn’t, so I think that’s going to provide a little motivation for us to get in a good week of work,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen.
In 2009, West Virginia needed a 56-yard touchdown run by Noel Devine with 2:10 remaining in the game to overcome a 24-21 deficit. And in 2008, the Mountaineers trailed the Huskies 13-7 at halftime before West Virginia erupted for three touchdowns in the third quarter on the way to a 35-13 victory.
Despite Connecticut’s 2-3 record, Holgorsen is expecting another slug-it-out affair this weekend.
“They’re physical; they’re big,” said Holgorsen. “We’re going to have to do a good job of being physical and playing with a bunch of effort.”
Connecticut may be a game under .500 with its new coach Paul Pasqualoni, who WVU fans know well from his days at Syracuse, but the Huskies could very easily be 5-0 as well. A matter of 14 fourth-quarter points is all that separates them from wins over Vanderbilt, Iowa State and Western Michigan.
In the Vandy game, Connecticut scored 18 straight points to take a 21-14 lead midway through the fourth quarter before a 50-yard pick six by the Commodores turned the game around. A week later against Iowa State, Connecticut was not able to cash in on first half Cyclone turnovers, leading just 10-7 at halftime, and holding a 20-17 advantage heading into the fourth quarter before Iowa State pulled out 24-20 victory.
And last week against Western Michigan, Connecticut had a 24-17 lead with 12:40 to play and was tied 31-31 with 2:03 remaining before the Broncos hit a late 41-yard touchdown pass. Connecticut then got to the Western Michigan 13 before fumbling.
“They’ve played some good football teams,” Holgorsen said. “If you look at what Western Michigan has done this year they’ve been competitive in every game and they’ve played some pretty good people. I watched the tape pretty closely and that wasn’t UConn playing poorly - that was Western Michigan making a whole bunch of plays in very tight space, which was fairly impressive to watch.”
Pasqualoni has brought in a new coaching staff at UConn including offensive coordinator George DeLeone, who ran Pasqualoni’s offenses at Syracuse, but the Huskies play a similar style to last year’s team that was coached by Randy Edsall.
Connecticut wants to possess the football with a big, strong offensive line and a tough running game and then play-action pass down the field off of its runs. Connecticut has had a string of good running backs, most recently Jordan Todman and Donald Brown, and the Huskies appear to be grooming another good one in freshman Lyle McComb.
He ran for 141 yards against Fordham in his college debut and added 100-yard games against Vanderbilt and Western Michigan. For the season, McCombs shows 502 yards, a 4.1 yards-per-carry average, and four rushing TDs.
Former walk-on Johnny McEntee has taken over the quarterbacking reins and has played well of late, completing 34 of his last 60 passes for 513 yards and six touchdowns after getting off to a rough start in his first three games against Fordham, Vanderbilt and Iowa State. In those three games he completed just 31-of-69 passes for 400 yards with four interceptions and no touchdowns.
“Guys that are inexperienced who get out there and play, nine times out of 10 they tend to get better,” said Holgorsen. “It’s a new system for him, which probably held him back a little bit. The fact that he’s getting to play a lot of football is why he’s showing improvement.”
An area Holgorsen has closely studied is Connecticut’s defense, spending two hours on Sunday watching last year’s game in Storrs. What Holgorsen saw was a UConn defensive line that controlled the line of scrimmage and an aggressive backend that forced several key turnovers.
Many of those same players will be in Morgantown on Saturday.
“Their defensive front is big and they try and outnumber and suffocate you,” Holgorsen said. “They’re good against the run because they’re physical and they try and outnumber you.”
Senior defensive tackle Kendall Reyes is an Outland, Bronko Nagurski and Lombardi Award candidate who shows a team-best 9 ½ tackles for a loss and four sacks.
“Schematically, they do things to try and create problems, and they do a good job of it,” Holgorsen said. “They get eight negative plays a game and about three sacks a game. It will be another challenge for our offensive line.”
Junior linebacker Jory Johnson leads the team with 44 tackles with freshman linebacker Yawin Smallwood a close second with 42 stops. The entire secondary returns from last year, but was without junior Blidi Wreh-Wilson for the Western Michigan game after he suffered a strained MCL in the Buffalo win. Pasqualoni said before the Western Michigan game that Wreh-Wilson would be out “a few weeks.”
“They’re without one of the corners, which he may or may not be back,” said Holgorsen. “We need our receivers to make plays. Western Michigan had guys make plays in space, so I give them credit.”
Connecticut gave up 479 yards through the air last weekend against Western Michigan and is surrendering 240.4 yards per game through the air, something West Virginia hopes to exploit on Saturday.
“If they’re trying to suffocate you on the line of scrimmage then you don’t need to be stubborn and do things to allow them to be successful,” explained Holgorsen. “We’ll try to figure out what their plan is and attack it the best way we know how to.”
During the Mountaineers’ first four games of the year, most of their yardage has come on the arm of junior quarterback Geno Smith, who enters this week ranked fifth in the country in passing yards per game (341.8) and seventh in total offense (343.0).
But last week against Bowling Green they got a big boost from true freshman Dustin Garrison, who ran for a WVU freshman record 291 yards (tying Kerry Marbury for the second-most ever) and scored two touchdowns as West Virginia piled up 360 yards on the ground against the Falcons.
Getting that rushing performance from Garrison now means defenses can’t simply focus on a Mountaineer passing game that has seen four different receivers produce 100-yard games and six different players catch TD passes this year.
Junior Tavon Austin leads the team with 35 catches for 490 yards and a touchdown, but sophomore Stedman Bailey has been the most consistent performer, snagging 28 passes for 324 yards and three scores and producing three straight 100-yard games, including last week’s four-catch, 112-yard performance against Bowling Green.
Defensively, the Mountaineers were able to force four turnovers and sack Falcon quarterback Matt Schilz two times, limiting Bowling Green to just 217 yards of total offense.
Jeff Casteel’s improving unit allowed only 114 yards through the air last week and is tied for 19th this week in pass efficiency defense; the Mountaineers are 22nd in total defense allowing 306.4 yards per game.
In last year’s loss to the Huskies, West Virginia limited UConn to just 278 total yards.
Saturday’s game will kick off at noon and will be televised by the Big East Network (Mike Gleason, John Congemi and Eamon McAnaney).
Prior to the game, West Virginia University will recognize its newest members of the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame with official induction ceremonies taking place inside the Caperton Indoor Practice Facility at 9:30 a.m.
There are a limited number of tickets remaining for Saturday’s game and those can be purchased through the Mountaineer Ticket Office by phone (1-800-WVU GAME) or online by logging on to WVUGAME.com.
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