West Virginia-East Carolina: Five Questions About Stormy Matchup

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West Virginia-East Carolina: Five Questions About Stormy Matchup

As of this writing (Friday, 2:45 p.m.), Hurricane Hanna has not yet washed out the WVU-ECU game in Greenville, N.C., which is pretty much dead center of the storm's projected path.

The game will be broadcast, possibly using underwater cameras, on ESPN beginning at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday.

WVU is coming off a solid 48-21 victory over I-AA Villanova last weekend, in which quarterback Pat White threw for five TDs but the defense gave up nearly 400 yards of offense.

East Carolina is coming off a mild upset over a ranked Virginia Tech team last week that is nice, but not as monumental as it's being made out to be in some quarters.  Tech is depleted on offense this year, having lost its top receiver to the NFL and its top running back to a sort of Ricky Williams wilderness, and was without its top defensive player.

All that being said, the win will give East Carolina plenty of confidence as giant killers tomorrow, and that is material.

Here are five things to watch for in the game.

 

1. How does East Carolina defend WVU and Pat White 2.0?

The strategy of loading the box with eight or nine players is over.  Do the Pirates play a straight-up defense, knowing they'll give up some yards through the air to White and on the ground to running back Noel Devine?  Or do they blitz, trying for a big play such as an interception or fumble?

I have read that East Carolina's secondary could be a weakness, but we've seen that its defensive line is a strength.

 

2. How does WVU's defense respond?

The defense gave up plenty of yards to a lesser opponent in 2007's opening game, but then started to tighten up.  Villanova's quarterback was no slouch, but the WVU defense will face a Division I quarterback, and a senior one, in Patrick Pinkney, who had a very efficient day last week against Tech.

East Carolina has not found a running back to replace last year's star who went to the NFL.  But the defense shut him down last year, anyway.

 

3. Will Reed Williams play?

Or even dress?  The heart of the WVU defense is linebacker Reed Williams, the defensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl.  He had both shoulders operated on during the offseason.  Coach Bill Stewart has been either cryptic or poorly informed when talking about Williams' status: Before the Villanova game, Stewart said Williams would start, but he didn't even dress.

If Williams doesn't play against East Carolina, odds are that he's headed to a medical redshirt for the season, and WVU will have to backfill with Anthony Leonard and Pat Lazear, both of whom are talented but very green.

 

4. Whither Terence Kerns?

WVU and Coach Stewart fretted and fretted all offseason over whether the heralded running back recruit would make eligibility.  He did.  The 240-pound back with the alleged 4.3 speed would provide a battering change-up to the small and shifty Devine, Stewart said.  Or, as my buddy Marty said, "the hammer to Devine's nail."

Kerns broke off some good runs in August practice, but he also could not consistently hold on to the ball, an unforgivable sin in Stewart's church.  Also, he has had trouble picking up the offense.

Charleston (W.Va.) sportswriter Mike Casazza estimates Kerns is one short step away from a redshirt, leaving the backup running back duties to newbies Mark Rodgers, a Devine-sized sprite, and Zach Hulce, a 200-pounder.

 

5. Can Stewart sustain his motivation?

Coach Stewart's Fiesta Bowl pregame speech has become something of legend among Mountaineer fans.  ("Leave no doubt!")  It's fair to say he is responsible for rescuing and gelling the team following the swift and unexpected exit of the former coach.  By all accounts, his style has worked in the offseason: He's kicked trouble players off the team and worked the rest hard.  Players say his mantra is, "Bite, don't bark."

The question is, can such a velvet-glove-on-a-fist-of-iron approach work for the long haul, or is it built for triage following a catastrophe?  This week will be a fine test, as it marks WVU's first real challenge, one that came two games earlier than expected.

Finally, we can't wrap up a column about a team named the Pirates without the obligatory "Yarrrgh!"

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