MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for MSNsportsNET.com. You can read more about Mountaineer football at Jed’s website http://thesignalcaller.com
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Here we go again.
West Virginia is no stranger to dynamic receivers during bowl season.
In the 2007 Gator Bowl, the Mountaineers faced “Megatron” himself. Back then, long before emerging as one of the most physically preposterous pass catchers in the NFL, he was just Calvin Johnson – the physically imposing All-American for Georgia Tech. Against the Mountaineers, Johnson racked up 186 receiving yards (123 in the first half alone) and grabbed a pair of touchdowns.
Two seasons later in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, North Carolina’s Hakeem Nicks – another future first round draft pick - exploded for 217 yards (148 in the first quarter) and two scores against West Virginia.
The good news?
In both cases, WVU found a way to overcome those epic receiving performances and win the game. They did so by forcing key turnovers (two in each game) and by getting a special effort from the quarterback position. That effort came in the form of Pat White’s two-game total of 663 combined yards and six touchdowns. A similar showing will likely be needed again by the West Virginia defense and – this time around - by QB Geno Smith if the Mountaineers hope to overcome Sammy Watkins and a Clemson offense that will almost certainly make their share of plays.
Much like Johnson and Nicks from WVU’s past bowl games, the freshman Watkins (77-1,153-11 TDs) is one of the most electrifying players in the game. In his first year on campus Watkins has announced his presence in grand fashion, breaking former Redskins standout Rod Gardner’s 12-year-old school record for single-season receiving yards.
Dabo Swinney’s Tigers are fast and nasty, presenting problems on both sides of the football – but the book is out on how to beat them. The problem is West Virginia might not be constructed to follow that popular plan. What’s the key? In all three of Clemson’s losses, the opposition held the football for 36-plus minutes (Georgia Tech 39:00, NC State 36:20 and South Carolina 37:17).
As most fans recognize, this Mountaineer team ranks No. 114 nationally in time of possession and isn’t built to play keep away. Even when West Virginia churned out a season-high 360 rushing yards against Bowling Green they did so in only 28 minutes of work on the field. Much like Clemson, WVU is structured to attack and overcome deficits. Playing old-school, ball-control offense is not the Dana Holgorsen way – but that’s not to say it can’t happen. WVU did win time of possession four times this year, and in the victory at Cincinnati the Mountaineers actually held the football for 36 minutes on the dot. (Side note: I’m betting West Virginia might be the first team in history to hang onto the football for that long with just 32 yards rushing.) Those 36 minutes represented the second highest T.O.P. ever achieved by Dana Holgorsen as a play caller. Holgorsen’s highest was a 2005 game in which Texas Tech held the ball for 36:01 (one second longer than WVU at Cincy) and got unceremoniously blasted by Texas, 52-17. That result in itself is somewhat revealing. In stark contrast to conventional offenses, it’s not traditionally been a good thing when a Holgorsen team holds the ball extensively. Instead, his attacks have ascended to incredible heights by getting to the end zone quickly and then getting off the field. Assertive play callers such as Holgorsen don’t like seeing their offenses hang around and waiting for a penalty to kill a drive or, worse yet, for the defense to be afforded too many chances to force a turnover. They like to score and get back to the bench.
Unlike the more aggressive defensive units in the Big East that WVU saw down the stretch (Cincy, Pitt & USF are all in the top 10 nationally in sacks and TFLs), Clemson has been far less adventurous (65th in sacks and 85th in TFLs). Instead of manufacturing pressure with a laundry list of blitzes from second and third level players, the Tigers will often sit back in coverage and rely on their talented front four to get to the quarterback. That’s not a bad plan when you have the luxury of churning pass rushers like Da’Quan Bowers and Andre Branch through your program. Bowers led the country in sacks last year for Clemson before being selected in the second round of the NFL draft, and Branch heads into the Orange Bowl ranked No. 10 nationally with an ACC-best 10 ½ sacks. In fact, the Tigers top three sack leaders this season are all D-linemen. That’s how they roll.
On the backend, the Tigers secondary is a savvy group that does a great job of recognizing route combinations and flying to the football. Sure they allowed 20 touchdown passes this year, but don’t let that fool you. Throw in the tape of Clemson’s demolition of Virginia Tech in the ACC title game and what quickly grabs your attention are the nine deflected balls by the Tigers defense. Time after time the Clemson defenders anticipated the development of the Hokies’ routes and promptly made their way into the throwing lane. That’s the mark of a well coached defense executing a good plan.
In broad terms, Clemson’s goal defensively is to keep things in front of them. They challenge you to have the patience to engineer lengthy drives that don’t result in offensive miscues. That might be good news for Mountaineer fans. Despite Holgorsen’s reputation as a quick-strike play caller, West Virginia has quietly done a solid job this year of stringing together long drives.
WVU Director of Football Communications Mike Montoro has kept a running total all season on the number of scoring drives the Mountaineers have orchestrated of 10 plays or more. Mike updates it each week in the team’s game notes, and he’s always quick to point out the latest total in conversation. Why? Because it’s a significant statistic that represents an offense’s ability to do one of the most difficult things in football: stay on the field extensively and score instead of falling prey to a mistake. As such, it does say a lot about the Mountaineers offense that they’ve managed to bag 23 scoring drives of 10 plays or more - just two fewer than the total of the previous two seasons combined.
Some of the lengthy scoring drives by WVU have come at very defining intervals this season. For example, the Mountaineers marched 89 yards on 11 plays through the blowing snow of Piscataway before Geno Smith’s fourth down touchdown scamper put West Virginia on top of Rutgers with 6:16 to play. The touchdown drive that gave WVU its final lead in the fourth quarter at Cincinnati totaled 12 plays for 74 yards. The drive that lifted the Mountaineers over Pitt with six minutes remaining in the Backyard Brawl was 11 plays for 83 yards; and the game-winning field goal drive at South Florida was 10 plays for 63 yards.
Such drives aren’t easy to assemble under any circumstances, much less in the pressure cooker of the fourth quarter with the game hanging in the balance. Time after time this year, Geno Smith and the WVU offense have responded when it mattered most. Now they’ll more than likely be asked to do so again.
There will indeed be a time in Miami against Clemson - maybe even two, three or four times - in which Geno and Company will have to again show true grit. The Tigers will drop numbers into coverage and dare the Mountaineers to stay on the field for an extended number of mistake-free plays and drive against the odds toward the end zone.
To win its third BCS game in six years, the West Virginia offense will have to accept that dare.
See you sat the Fifty.