Weekly Preview: West Virginia
Image Credit: Zimbio
Opponent: West Virginia Mountaineers (2-1, 0-1 Big 12 Conference)
Game Date/Time: Saturday, September 21, 2013; 3:30 PM ET
Venue: M&T Bank Stadium (71,008)
TV/Radio Broadcasts: ESPNU, Terrapin Sports Radio Network
All-Time Record: 26-21-2 West Virginia
(Discuss this article on the BSL Message Board here.)
Cornerback Injury Analysis:
The big news out of College Park this week was that senior CB Dexter McDougle had played his last game as a Maryland Terrapin on Saturday against Connecticut. He will have shoulder surgery and wait for an NFL team to take a flyer on him next off-season. He was one of the few Terps seniors who had real NFL hopes, though LB Marcus Whitfield’s stock is rising very, very quickly.
Nevertheless, the season goes on. The Terps will be without their top 2 cornerbacks for most of this season, so that means opportunities for young players to make their marks earlier than expected. Senior CB Isaac Goins will be 1st on the depth chart, having played as a nickelback for most of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. He is branded as a lock-down corner, and shouldn’t have too much of a problem in man-to-man situations. Backing him up is freshman sensation William Likely, who has shown his ability to fly all over the field making plays. He will be relied upon heavily for the remainder of the season, and will try to make up for the loss of McDougle’s intercepting abilities. Likely is only 5-foot-7, but plays much bigger than that.
Backing up Goins and Likely will be sophomore CB Alvin Hill and true freshman Jarrett Ross. Hill got burned a few times in the game against Connecticut, and will need to play with some more discipline against West Virginia. Ross was Edsall’s first recruit of this year’s class, and has a lot of speed. He certainly has potential, but will see a lot of the field this week against the Mountaineers’ spread offense. A.J. Hendy can play both safety and cornerback, and I would expect to see him playing in a hybrid nickelback position a lot until Jeremiah Johnson comes back.
There will undoubtedly be some scheme changes on defense now that the two best cornerbacks on the team are gone. With McDougle, Johnson, and Goins all on the field, defensive coordinator Brian Stewart had no problem whatsoever playing a ton of man coverage. All three of those guys are very good at playing one-on-one. That also allowed him to dial up some crazy blitzes and not have to worry a lot about leaving his corners out on an island. Unfortunately for the Terps, that all may have to change now. Goins can still match up well, but Likely, Hill, and Ross could have some trouble with that. I’d expect the Terps to have to go to more zone coverage, which means that the defensive line will have to get the majority of the pressure without the help of a lot of blitzers. Marcus Whitfield will still blitz a lot though. His 4.5 sacks through 3 weeks are too many to ignore.
This defense will have to be able to prevent big plays, and be good in the red zone. Holding teams to field goals instead of touchdowns will be big now that they can’t play so aggressively. With an offense like Maryland’s, a defense that gives up some points isn’t necessarily going to hurt too much. The offense will have to be even more potent, and will have to simply outscore their opponents. This week will be a big test, as West Virginia is in the same boat as Maryland: a good offense and a defense prone to giving up some points. We could be in for a shootout in Baltimore on Saturday afternoon.
This week, I was able to talk with West Virginia football beat writer Stephen Nesbitt, who works with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I would like to thank Mr. Nesbitt for his professionalism and his insightful answers.
BSL: The Mountaineers opened the season with a tight 24-17 win over William & Mary and a close 16-7 loss to Oklahoma. But last week they crushed FBS newcomer Georgia State 41-7. What kind of progression have you seen with this team from Week 1 to Week 3?
Nesbitt: Well, to be honest, it’s really hard to read. Let’s split this up offense vs. defense. On offense, they spent the first two weeks trying to figure out their quarterback situation to no avail, getting perfectly mediocre starts from Paul Millard. Last week, finally, they settled on Ford Childress and then rocked FBS doormat Georgia State. That by no means indicates that the offense is figured out. West Virginia needs to prove it can pass against legitimate teams and legitimate defenses, and that starts this week. In truth, it’s an offense still searching for an identity — and that process couldn’t be completed until they found a starting quarterback. They have a stable of stud running backs in Charles Sims, Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood, but, at its core, it appears West Virginia is still going to be a pass-happy offense — only, this year, it has a running game to complement the pass.
The coaches have been all sorts of pleased with the defense. Sure, it’s through just three games, but simply looking at the numbers there have been radical improvements across the board, particularly with points per game (13.3, down from 38.1) and passing yards against (136.7, down from 312.8). Now, with that said, Maryland will be the first relatively balanced and competent offense West Virginia has faced this year, so those gaudy numbers are finally going to be tested. To be certain, the defense looks far better than it did a year ago. But is it one of the top in the nation, like the numbers indicate thus far? Not so fast. Maryland be the first true test of this defense’s mettle.
BSL: West Virginia lost its starting quarterback from last year when Geno Smith was drafted by the New York Jets. Paul Millard and Clint Trickett got chances as the Mountaineers’ starting QB, but redshirt freshman Ford Childress seems to have won the job with a strong showing against Georgia State. What can Terps fans expect to see from the young QB?
Nesbitt: Childress is a guy that likes to air it out. He connected on six passes of 20 yards or longer in his debut last week. His 359 passing yards were the most ever by a West Virginia first-year quarterback and were 19th all-time in program history. Still, yes, it was against Georgia State, so it’s probably unwise to crown him just yet. Expect Childress to heavily utilize the play-action pass on Saturday, given that Maryland will likely stack the box in order to minimize the effectiveness of the strong running back corps and force Childress to beat them in the air. With a group of unproven and drop-happy receivers on the edge, that’s probably a smart move by the Terps. Childress brings a new energy to the offense, and a major focus this week was picking up the tempo of the air-raid offense with Childress in order to keep Maryland on its heels. So, expect passes, a quick tempo and plenty of shots downfield.
BSL: Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Geno Smith. All are names that have epitomized West Virginia football for a long time now. How have the Mountaineers dealt with the departure of a lot of their key players, and how much has it hurt them?
Nesbitt: Right you are — those three names were the West Virginia offense for the last few years. I think the perception varies around the locker room. If you ask the receivers, they’re thrilled right now because they finally get a chance. Silly, telling statistic: Bailey (25), Austin (12) and J.D. Woods (3) combined for 41 of West Virginia’s nation-high 44 receiving touchdowns last season. The Mountaineers returned just two receivers this fall that had a single touchdown catch in their West Virginia careers. With just the trio you named, West Virginia lost over 85 percent of its offense from a year ago. So, it’s been a search for the next playmakers. The first name to jump out is Charles Sims, a graduate transfer running back from Houston. He’s had 293 yards and two touchdowns in three games and is an NFL-caliber back, but this is his last and only year at West Virginia. Childress, it seems, will become a face of the program from this point on. At receiver it’s still uncertain who’s going to emerge as the No. 1 target and begin to fill in the void left by Bailey and Austin. I do think the departure of such fixtures has hurt the offense, but one positive would be that it’s put a bit of the spotlight back on the defense, and there are some players on that side of the ball that really deserve it. Safeties Darwin Cook and Karl Joseph, in particular, have been fantastic early in the season, as has linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski.
BSL: West Virginia’s defense was pretty bad last season. What steps have the team and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson taken to improve that defense?
Nesbitt: West Virginia now employs a strict 3-4 scheme, and that seems to be helping slow the passing game. The defensive front of nose tackle Shaq Rowell flanked by Will Clarke and Kyle Rose has provided good push, and there are a number of sure-handed tacklers behind them. Now, the 3-4 scheme has left them open to get bullied by strong rushing attacks — see: Oklahoma’s 316 rushing yards. In total, though, the defense has been a pleasant surprise, and I’d expect they won’t be picked apart by Maryland and their Big 12 opponents nearly as badly this fall.
BSL: Maryland came in to Morgantown last season and made a game out of what was supposed to be a blowout. With Maryland’s explosive offense and strong defense, how do you see this game playing out in Baltimore on Saturday?
Nesbitt: I make it a point to not make predictions, but, to be sure, this is being billed as anything but an expected rout. West Virginia coaches and players spoke all week about the importance of this regional rivalry and their excitement to play at a professional stadium. They’re going to be up for this one, as will Maryland. I’m fascinated to see how the matchup with Diggs goes. If he can be stopped, that’ll do a lot for the confidence and résumé of the West Virginia secondary. If he can’t, well, maybe they’re right back where they were a year ago. My best guess is that it’ll come down the stretch as a one-score game either way.
Zack’s Keys to the Game:
- Score, Score, Score - The Terps and the Mountaineers are two teams with very potent offenses and defenses prone to giving up points. In order to win this game, the Terps will simply need to outscore West Virginia.
- Bend, don’t break - Maryland’s defense is going to miss their top 2 cornerbacks, and will probably give up a lot more yards than they have in a while. But if they can be solid in the red zone, and limit the number of big plays for the Mountaineers, they have a good chance of keeping themselves in the game.
- Pressure the freshman - West Virginia will be starting freshman QB Ford Childress on Saturday. It is only his second college football start, so pressuring him early will be key. Look for Brian Stewart to send sack-master Marcus Whitfield after him a lot, trying to add to his 4.5 sacks on the year.
- Limit mistakes - For the Terps to win, they have to put themselves in the best position to win. A defense that is already missing its two best cornerbacks can’t afford to be given bad field position due to penalties, bad punts, or turnovers by the offense.
- Beat the streak - West Virginia has won 7 games in a row against Maryland. If the Terps really want to make this a rivalry, they need to beat the Mountaineers sooner rather than later. M&T Bank Stadium in brand new uniforms would be a perfect opportunity.
- Build national attention - A win against West Virginia would boost the Terps to 4-0 on the season heading into ACC play. It would build a ton of hype for their conference opener in Tallahassee against Florida State.