West Virginia vs. Cincinnati
(Friday, 8 p.m. EST, ESPN2)
What to watch for
Studs on the mend
West Virginia got some good news this week as running back Noel Devine is expected to play after injuring his ankle in the first half vs. Louisville last Saturday. Devine is the Mountaineers’ most dynamic playmaker on offense, although this game could be tough sledding.
Cincinnati has done a great job in the past slowing down the horizontal spread attack of West Virginia and making it tough for Devine to find any type of running room on the outside. The Bearcats have an athletic front seven and do a great job getting after the football laterally and working hard in pursuit.
Therefore, there might be more of a burden on quarterback Jarrett Brown to be effective throwing the ball down the field in the pass game tonight.
Either way, this is not the type of game Devine can slowly ease into because the Bearcats have the ability to make plays in space and force the West Virginia offense into unmanageable down-and-distance situations.
On the other side of the ball, Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly said this week that quarterback Zach Collaros will start vs. West Virginia but that former starter Tony Pike is also expected to see time. Pike hasn’t seen the field in three weeks—since injuring his non-throwing arm—and the stellar play of Collaros during that time has created a bit of a quarterback controversy in Cincinnati.
However, Kelly has elected to stand by his senior quarterback and expects him to take back the starting role full-time next week vs. Illinois. It will be interesting to see just how short a leash Kelly gives his senior signal caller if Pike enters the game and struggles.
What to do if he’s not so Devine?
If West Virginia’s Devine is ineffective early, you can bet you’ll see a heavy dose of RB/WR Jock Sanders in all areas of the game. Sanders is a unique athlete, measuring only 5'7" and 178 pounds, but like Devine, he’s deadly in the open field. He did a nice job last week replacing Devine in the second half vs. Louisville, rushing for 66 yards on 12 carries and keeping the Mountaineers’ offense ahead of the chains.
However, Sanders is also the team’s leading receiver with 58 catches and will likely be asked to carry the bulk of the offense if Devine is unable to get it going.
In order to help take some pressure off the undersized Sanders, the West Virginia pass game needs to be more effective vertically. Wideouts Alric Arnett, Bradley Starks, and Wes Lyons all have the ability to make plays down the field. The question is, can QB Brown consistently get them the football?
Can he carry the burden?
We know the Cincinnati offense is capable of putting up a ton of points, and Collaros has been as efficient as any quarterback in the nation in recent weeks. However, it’s vital for West Virginia’s Brown to play within himself and not make this game a battle between the two quarterbacks because, frankly, Collaros is better—a lot better.
Expect West Virginia to try to get Brown outside the pocket with a run/pass option on early downs. He’s as physically gifted as any quarterback in the nation, and when he takes off, he’s an absolute bear to bring down in the open field.
If West Virginia is able to get Brown some easy throws early and build his confidence in the pass game, he has the skill set to keep this one close. But if he’s forced to make plays as a pocket passer in unmanageable down-and-distance situations, the Mountaineers are really going to struggle.
Tough task lies ahead
Putting the brakes on the Cincinnati offense isn’t going to be easy for any team this season. Kelly does a great job creating a rhythm for his quarterback, and he has the athletes on the outside to consistently separate and make plays after the catch.
The receiving trio of Mardy Gilyard, Armon Binns, and D.J. Woods has the ability to consistently create mismatches in the pass game and if given time will be able to create big plays vs. the West Virginia secondary.
The key to slowing down the Bearcats' pass game is disrupting the timing of the receivers off the line and creating pressure up front. The Mountaineers need to find a way to create pressure in their penny (3-3-5) defense and force Collaros to get rid of the ball before he wants.
Collaros is a good athlete who has done a great job all year buying time in the pocket, breaking containment, and keeping his eyes down the field. Consequently, discipline will be a key when bringing pressure.
West Virginia DE Julian Miller is the one X-factor on the Mountaineers defense that needs to have a big game. He’s a gifted athlete with a good first step and has the ability to consistently threaten the corner and reach the quarterback.
We know West Virginia is going to be forced to bring pressure from its linebacking corps, but Miller is the one constant who needs to routinely beat the man in front of him and create havoc behind the line to give the Mountaineers’ defense a chance.
This is a bad game for West Virginia’s Devine to be banged up since he’s never had much success running the ball against the Bearcats’ front seven. But the Mountaineers have enough athletes on defense to give the Cincinnati offense some trouble early, and the fact Pike is going to see his first action in three weeks could keep the offense out of rhythm.
Nevertheless, Cincinnati is playing at home and has the ability to score points on anyone, and the more pressure West Virginia QB Brown has on him to throw the ball, the less effective he’ll be. That’s why I like Cincinnati to improve to 10-0 tonight.
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