It's one of the oldest and simplest mantras in football: have success running the football and stopping the run, and your team should have a great chance to win. West Virginia almost always excels at the former. This week, the Mountaineers will have their hands full trying to execute the latter.
When Connecticut's offense trots out onto the natural surface of Rentschler Field on Saturday afternoon, keep an eye on No. 34 in blue. Chances are, he'll be the one toting the pigskin for much of the afternoon. Junior Donald Brown is the Alpha and the Omega of UConn's offense. The nation's leading rusher at 165.5 yards per game, Brown presents a number of problems for West Virginia's defense with his power, speed and overall productivity.
"He's a stud. He has great patience, great vision, great feet," said WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. "He's the best back we've seen. He is really good."
"He's at another level right now," continued Casteel. "He is a load, a tough guy to get a hold of. He does a great job of reading blocks and being patient. At times he'll stop behind the line of scrimmage, but has the ability to get back at full speed by his second step. He is a very good football player."
"We've watched film for the last couple of days, and he just makes plays, you know? He never stops his feet; they're always moving," added senior linebacker Mortty Ivy. "We've got to fly to the ball and contain him. We've got to play solid football against him."
Brown's presence in the UConn offense has taken on added significance since starting quarterback Tyler Lorenzen went down with a broken foot in an early-season win over Louisville. With Lorenzen out of the lineup, the Huskies are just 1-2, losing to Rutgers and North Carolina. UConn was, however, able to bounce back with a win this past weekend over Cincinnati.
In the weeks since Lorenzen left the lineup, Brown has carried the ball nearly 30 times per game. Expect more of the same on Saturday when West Virginia visits.
"From what we've seen, they put the ball more in Brown's hands," Ivy said. "With Lorenzen in there, they're more likely to throw the ball. They still throw the ball now, but you want to be cautious. With Lorenzen out, they're just putting the ball in their playmaker's hands."
As Casteel mentioned, Brown's running style is very patient, allowing his blocks to set up and the holes to open much like former WVU great Avon Cobourne. The way to counter that patience, according to the Mountaineers, is to play hard-nosed, aggressive defense. Doing so, after all, would decrease the amount of time that Brown has to set up his blocks.
"You've got to attack him," Ivy explained. "If you play tentative and stay back hoping that he's going to run into your hole that's when he's going to hit the crease. If we go out there and play downhill and play full speed towards him, then it will be hard for him to get out."
The patience, speed and overall productivity certainly are visible and well-documented. Look up any rushing stats on a conference or national level, and chances are you'll see Brown at or near the top of every list. Brown stands alone in rushing yards and rushing yards per game. Only Missouri's Derrick Washington and Michigan State's Javon Ringer have scored more touchdowns.
Something that doesn't show up on the stat sheet – but certainly shows up on film – is Brown's ability to get plenty of yards after contact. More specifically, the talented junior uses the stiff arm to his advantage more than any back in the country.
"There are times that you think he's down, but then he pops out of a hole and next thing you know he's gone for 60," said Ivy. "We've got to make sure that we get him down and swarm to the ball.
"He gets a lot of plays with (the stiff arm)," continued West Virginia's senior linebacker. "He sets you up every time. You can be sitting there thinking that he's just going to run right by you and then he sticks out that hand and pushes you off. If we get enough people to the ball, you never know. You might even be able to cause a fumble or something. We just have to go out and play sound football and execute. We've got to make some plays."
While big plays on both sides of the ball would certainly go a long way in picking up West Virginia's third Big East win of the season, executing simple tackling fundamentals will be just as important, particularly against Brown.
"It's a game of tackling," Casteel noted. "We just have to go tackling."
"We're going to see what happens on Saturday," concluded Ivy. "We've just got to get ready for it."
Being ready for Brown is a big part of that.