Moonshining, hillbillies, missing teeth, couch burning, bottle chucking. These are among the many phrases most people use to get under the skin of West Virginia fans. But a passion for their football program isn’t one of them. The Mountaineers boast one of the most loyal, well traveling fanbases in the country, the largest on-campus football venue in the Big East with the 60,000 seat Milan-Puskar Stadium, and an intense history of winning on the gridiron. Since joining the Big East West Virginia has only finished 7th once and 5th twice. In those twenty-or-so seasons, WVU has won six outright/shared Big East championships and a solid 64% winning percentage (153 – 85 – 2). The Mountaineers were fairly average under coach Don Nehlen in the 90’s but saw a surge under Rich Rodriguez in the 2000’s as one of the most dangerous offenses in the conference. West Virginia still built off the momentum of the Rich Rod era winning 9 games in each of Bill Stewart’s season but his tumultuous dismissal in the offseason somewhat tarnished his short legacy at WVU.
In stepped Dana Holgorsen, the offensive mastermind that engineered the high flying Air Raid-type offenses of Houston, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State. The only wrinkle his schemes is that he likes to run the ball from those formations as much as he likes to pass it. In this sense, he has a very similar mentality to Coach Butch Jones in that the running back is as important as the quarterback to create balance in the offense. By utilizing the run game so effectively, Holgorsen has added the play action pass to the offense that allows his receivers to exploit the safeties and corners deep when they bite on the run.
But don’t fool yourself, Holgorsen’s offense begins and ends with the quarterback and Geno Smith has operated it perfectly this season throwing for over 3,000 yards, almost 350 per game, 23 touchdowns, and only 5 interceptions. To say he has thrived in Holgorsen’s schemes is an understatement. Smith’s receivers have been excelling, too. The Air-Raid distributes the ball to many different receivers making defenses continuously rethink where they should roll coverage as eight (count ‘em 8) players have over 100 receiving yards or more. By the numbers, the Mountaineers have three legit receiving threats in Stedman Bailey (933 yds, 9 TDs), Tavon Austin (781 yds, 4 TDs), and Ivan McCartney (536 yds, 3 TDs). There’s a very real possibility that both Bailey and Austin will eclipse the 1,000 yard mark this season with McCartney not too far behind. The bottom line is West Virginia can gain chunks of yards through the air and scores a ton of points per game (38).
If there is one crux of the West Virginia offense it’s the linemen and that’s not saying much. The Mountaineers have allowed 16 sacks this season which is middle of the pack nationally. I’ll get the actually keys to this game on Friday but (spoiler alert!) one of them is hitting Geno Smith whether it be a sack or even after the ball is thrown. Syracuse wrote the book on shutting down Holgorsen’s offense a few weeks ago and in that game Orange players were constantly knocking down Smith whether or not he had the ball in his hands. WVU’s offensive line looked porous against the Orange’s pass rush and the Mountaineer’s offense looked out of sorts all night as a result. In that game, Syracuse sacked Smith four times and in the Louisville game last Saturday the Cardinals sacked him three times. Both games resulted in Mountaineer losses so it doesn’t take a genius to know what this defense needs to do to succeed on Saturday.
On the flip side of the field, West Virginia still runs that goofy 3-3-5 defense that Jeff Casteel coaches. In many ways it’s very similar to the 3-4 that Cincinnati faced against Pitt last week. The problem is that Casteel doesn’t have the horses to run that defense like he had with last year’s team that would literally tally 5 sacks before even stepping onto the field. Gone are Scooter Berry and Chris Neild who were a great nose tackle tandem in the middle and while Bruce Irvin is back, he’s have a tough time adjusting to a full time roll at defensive end. Like the 3-4, the 3-3-5 requires veteran, speedy linebackers and the Mountaineers also lost that last season when J.T. Thomas and Anthony Leonard graduated who led the core in tackles. Overall the unit has given up a whopping 28 points per game, almost two touchdowns more than in 2010, and ranking 65th in the country. That’s unheard of for a WVU defense.
Finally to special teams. They’ve been, well, putrid this season. It’s punter by committee and neither has been that solid. The duo averages only 38 yards per punt which is 100th in the country. Corey Smith has handled most of the kickoffs this year but he probably shouldn’t. He’s only averaged about 61 yards per kickoff with a 5% touchback rate and has kicked two out of bounds. The coverage unit on punting and kickoffs has been very shaky as well, allowing 3 touchdowns so far this year. The one bright spot on special teams has been the speedster Tavon Austin who has taken a kickoff to the house and averages 25 yards per kickoff return and 15 per punt return. He’s a small, agile player that can burn most players in a foot race. Cincinnati needs to either corner him on one edge of the field or flat out not kick to him.
Cincinnati – 21
West Virginia – 34
The Bearcats have been living on the edge in their Big East games playing from a deficit at halftime in each one. Honestly, I don’t know how Cincinnati’s secondary that has given up 277 passing yards per game will be able to contain the three headed monster of Bailey-Austin-McCartney. I trust Deven Drane to cover well but after that I have serious questions about the rest of that unit’s ability to keep up. Plus with the way WVU has used the play action this year and the tendency of UC’s safeties to get sucked in by it, Geno Smith might have a big game. Sorry people but Cincinnati drops this one.