MATCHUPS AND STORYLINES
WVU kicker Pat McAfee vs. Rutgers placekicker Jeremy Ito
While its true that, like Steve Slaton and Ray Rice, this pair won’t face each other directly, it’s also quite likely that the performances of the placekickers in this game will have a huge effect on the outcome of the contest.
With a close matchup forecast on most fronts (WVU’s early six-point favorite status is something of a surprise), the game could well come down to a field goal. And whether that kick comes early or late in the game, it will be important. Which player is better equipped to handle the pressure?
McAfee, whose somewhat cultivated goofy exterior hides an intense competitive nature, has been very good this year. After missing a chip shot 22-yarder against Maryland, McAfee has drilled all eight of his subsequent tries, and looks to be on a roll. The concern for him, however, is that struggles with his punting duties could affect him mentally. He has to be able to compartmentalize all of his kicking duties (including kickoffs), and try to keep each one separate. He can’t be thinking about the last punt he tried when he hits the field for a three-point attempt. So far, that hasn’t been an issue, but he’ll need to keep that streak going as well.
Ito has been called upon more often for field goal tries this year, and has responded with a 12-16 effort. All of his misses have come from 40 yards or longer, so when the Knights get into the red zone, three points are all but assured. Like McAfee, Ito also handles Rutgers’ punting and kickoff duties, and he has also shown his versatility passing the ball with his completion against South Florida for a first down.
In any closely contested game, kicking in all forms becomes a magnified point of importance, and there’s no reason to think this one will be any different. If there were a way to measure all-purpose kicking (in a manner similar to all-purpose yardage), the winner in that battle will likely give his team a leg up in this contest.
WVU offensive tackle Selvish Capers vs. Rutgers defensive end Jamaal Westerman
Capers, in his first starting assignment where he has all week to prepare and think about it, will face a different sort of challenge as he readies himself for the Rutgers contest.
Being told a day or two before the fact that you are going to play is one situation, while knowing you are the starter all week is another. It’s another new experience for Capers, who has been on a non-stop learning curve after making the switch from tight end to tackle. He’s since flipped from the left side to the right side, which also requires footwork and hand placement adjustments. This week, he’s had to deal with knowing that he will be counted on from the outset to produce, and while that doesn’t sound like a big deal, it requires a different mental approach – again, something new to deal with.
Capers was solid in his first starting assignment against Mississippi State, but any pressure on him was eased when West Virginia scored like Dirk Diggler in the first quarter against the Bulldogs. Playing under pressure, with the game on the line, is a different matter, and the manner in which Capers responds to these challenges will be an item to watch.
In Westerman, Capers and fellow tackle Ryan Stanchek will face an accomplished foe. Westerman utilizes a variety of moves that allow him to get into the backfield, and he already has 30 tackles and six sacks this season. He has been a disruptive force for the Scarlet Knight front line this year, and even when he doesn’t make the final takedown, his quarterback pressures and penetration against running plays have often resulted in big plays for the Rutgers defense.
This matchup is pretty simple. If West Virginia can contain Westerman and keep him from running rampant through its backfield, WVU’s offense will have a much better chance of success. If, however, Westerman is blowing up the timing of plays before they get fully underway, the Mountaineers could struggle to put drives together.
THINGS TO WATCH
Patrick White has a career output of minus three yards versus Rutgers, but that’s not necessarily a cause for concern for Mountaineer fans. White played only a handful of snaps at Rutgers in 2005, and missed last year’s triple-overtime win in Morgantown with injuries. As a result, the great unknown of this game is how the Scarlet Knights will try to defend White. Will they try to penetrate upfield and get to him before they get started? Will they, as they did frequently against South Florida, use a spy to try to keep him from breaking into the open field? How much blitzing will they do?
The thinking here is that the Knights will use many of the same tactics they did against USF, and dare White to throw the ball to beat them. They want him in the pocket, not in the open field. They will also surely try to dish out as many hits as they can on him, as his health status remains a concern coming into the game.
For his part, White got out of bounds and even slid a couple of times to avoid hits in the Mississippi State game, and we’ll certainly see that continue. While there are times that he has been able to bounce off a tackler and keep going, it’s far more preferable to have him on the field, and if that means giving up a yard here or there, it’s a more than fair trade-off.
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Teams haven’t been hurting West Virginia with passes in the middle of the field nearly as much as they did in previous seasons, but look for Rutgers to resume that assault in this game. Tight end Kevin Brock has come off the bench to snare ten passes for 85 yards and two scores this year, and with the Mountaineers surely concentrating on Rutgers’ improved wide receiving corps, there could be room for Brock to operate. Likewise, Ray Rice is always a threat to circle out of the backfield and into vacated space between the hash marks, and once he has the ball he’s obviously a load to bring down. And finally, The Scarlet Knights utilize a number of crossing routes with their wide receivers – patterns that have bedeviled WestVirginia’s defense in previous seasons. WVU’s linebackers will have to keep these routes in front of them, deny passes between the linebacker and safety level, and tackle crisply in order to keep its lofty national defensive ranking.
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Rutgers backup quarterback Jabu Lovelace will also merit some focus from Mountaineer fans. A physically gifted player, Lovelace is kept on the second team only due to his inability to be a consistent decision maker. However, that doesn’t mean he can’t be dangerous to opposing teams. When he enters the game for a snap or two, he almost always runs the ball, and he has been successful with that assignment, averaging 5.3 yards per carry and scoring twice. West Virginia will have to be alert to his presence on the field, and adjust its defensive tactics to account for his skills. And with Teel (bruised hand) hurting, Lovelace could have a bigger role in this week’s game.
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With attention firmly focused on Rutgers’ use of trick plays against South Florida, West Virginia will be on guard for any further shenanigans from head coach Greg Schiano. However, in circumstances such as this, it’s sometimes the opposing team that gets the opportunity to run a gadget. Will head coach Rich Rodriguez pull something out in a game where every snap could be the difference between winning and losing? I wouldn’t bet against it.
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