MATCH-UPS AND STORYLINES
WVU defense vs. N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson
We try to avoid the obvious match-ups in this space, but this one is simply too important to pass up. The Wolfpack is going to put the ball in the hands of Wilson and trust him to generate offense, and West Virginia has to slow him (no opponent has really shut him down this year) and force enough mistakes to get stops and give the ball back to its offense. How does it do that? As it has against other mobile QBs this year, WVU must be disciplined in its pass rush, and when it runs stunts and twists or fire zone blitzes it must make sure not to leave big gaps that Wilson can scramble through.
The Mountaineers must also force Wilson to turn the ball over, which has been a key in the Pack's losses this year. Wilson threw 8 of his 14 picks in State's setbacks, including three each against Virginia Tech and East Carolina. He will force the ball into coverage at times, trusting his excellent corps of wide receivers to make plays, which they often do. However, the risk/reward factor there is high, and it's one that West Virginia must turn in its favor. The interception problem is a departure from Wilson's previous history, when he put together a streak of 379 consecutive pass attempts without an interception.
On the Mountaineer side of the ball, keep an eye on Robert Sands, who will be key against deep passes from his free safety position. Sands is among the best defenders in WVU history at patrolling the deep part of the field, from sideline to sideline, and getting to long throws. In fact, teams have stopped testing WVU in that area as much as they once did, but it won't be a surprise to see the Pack go downfield. Might we see a couple of swooping pass breakups and picks, with Sands stretching his six-foot, five-inch frame to get to the ball?
WVU running game vs. N.C. State front seven
With much attention focused on the quarterbacks, West Virginia's running game could be one of the hidden keys to the contest.
We've already talked about the possibility of Noel Devine having a breakout in his final game as a Mountaineer, but he's not the only back that could weigh heavily in the contest. Shawne Alston and Ryan Clarke could be antidotes to N.C. State's pressure-heavy defense, and if they can pop the line of scrimmage against an aggressive front, the Mountaineers could get some of the big plays in the running game that are keys to the balance of their offense. State isn't a slouch against the run, giving up an average of just 3.3 yards per carry in 2010, and they finished strongly as well, yielding negative rushing yardage totals of minus seven and minus nine yards to North Carolina and Maryland in its last two games. Still, West Virginia may try to get its power running game in gear to counteract the Pack's upfield aggression.
State's defense against the run was a mixed bag. In addition to those two outstanding season-ending performances, it held five other foes to fewer than 100 yards on the ground. It did give up 247 yards to Georgia Tech, which is understandable given the nature of the Yellow Jackets' offense, but it was also trampled for 317 rushing yards against Virginia Tech, and allowed 177 to Florida State. There's nothing fancy about the rushing attacks of those last two teams, so the Mountaineers were likely watching a lot of tape of those games to find keys to a successful running attack.
If West Virginia can generate enough running yards to keep the Wolfpack from pinning their collective ears back against the pass, it could well be on the way to a bowl win. Would 150 yards be enough? Let's say 180, just to be safe.
THINGS TO WATCH
Sacks and quarterback protection should be a key component of the contest. Both teams have been able to get to opposing quarterbacks this year, recording an identical 40 sacks each to tie for third nationally at 3.33 per contest. Both teams use a variety of blitzes and pressures to confuse opponents' blocking schemes and get open shots into the backfield, and have a number of players capable of getting home. N.C. State features six players with four or more sacks this year, headed by linebacker Nate Irving with 5.5, while WVU has 12 players with credit in that category, led by Bruce Irvin with 12 and Julian Miller with 8.
How will each team's offense handle the pressure? Both have had issues this year. The Wolfpack has yielded 34 sacks this year, but given their 500 pass attempts in 12 games, that's not as high a number as it might seem at first glance. WVU has given up 25, but those came on 157 fewer pass attempts than N.C. State. The Wolfpack will have an advantage in continuity, having started the same offensive line combination in its last nine games, while WVU will be shuffling its front wall to overcome the absence of Joey Madsen, who is ineligible for the contest.
While the lines bear watching, running backs will also play a key part in this battle. Which team can make the right reads and get its running backs into the proper position to help against blitzers, twists and stunts? Which quarterback can make the hot reads and calls most effectively and get the ball away accurately under pressure? Those factors will be just as important as the play of the line in determining which team can stave off the opposing rush most effectively.
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Which squad can handle the lay-off between the end of the regular season and the bowl game best? Unfortunately, there's no magic formula for addressing a 24-day gap between games,
but head coach Bill Stewart is definitely taking a less-stringent approach to preparations. While still shooting for the short, crisp and focused practices he demands, he apparently saw enough to give his squad an extra day off prior to departure for Orlando, and is holding just two full-scale workouts at the bowl site. (Monday's walk-though is typically not much more than throwing the ball around and running through the game plan.)
In the past, some WVU teams have gotten burned out prior to bowl games, with long practices and longer stays away from home over the holidays contributing to heavy-legged performances. Stewart is obviously hoping to avoid that, and build his team to peak efficiency at just the right time.
Whether that approach works or not remains to be seen, but it's important to remember that one approach definitely does not fit all. What might be the perfect plan for one team could fail miserably with another. The key is to find the right approach that fits the current team and its chemistry.
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Is there any real way of judging the mood of West Virginia's team going into the game? Probably not. We've talked about the effects of the coaching situation, and the absence of several key Mountaineers, so we're not going to rehash those here. But they do figure to have at least some impact on the way WVU's players approach the game. Will the seniors rally for themselves and their outgoing coaches? Will the disappointment of not making a BCS game still lurk?
The Mountaineer team has seemed loose and relaxed to this point at their practices and various functions, but those sorts of things can be deceiving. Teams can look prepared and ready prior to the game, then lay a giant egg. The converse is true, as bad practices and seemingly tense atmospheres can sometimes yield an outstanding game performance.
While all of those things may contribute, one of the biggest keys to picking a bowl winner is often identifying the team that wants to be there more. When West Virginia dropped from a potential Gator Bowl bid to the Continental Tire Bowl, it didn't want to be there, and the performance showed in its desultory 48-22 loss to Virginia. Which team is more interested in this contest? It's a plum for an N.C. State program that has been an ACC also-ran in recent years, but despite the labels of underachievement that were placed on WVU this year, it's still a respectable achievement. Figuring out which side “wants it more” likely won't be able to be determined until we see them on the field.