Colorado-West Virginia: "John Denver Bowl" Takes Center Stage Thursday
West Virginia preview
This week’s T.I.P.S. for the West Virginia game—all you need to know to get ready for the "Blackout" at Folsom Field on Thursday.
T - Talent
You will find little argument that there is a disparity in talent at the quarterback position between West Virginia and Colorado. Patrick White is an All-American for the Mountaineers, finishing sixth in the Heisman balloting last season while accumulating almost as many yards rushing as passing.
Cody Hawkins, conversely, is 8-7 as a starter for Colorado and is not ranked even in the top six amongst Big 12 quarterbacks (in this week’s Sporting News, Patrick White is ranked as the nation’s No. 1 quarterback. Hawkins is ranked 44th—ninth best in the Big 12).
White is the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback, while Hawkins, by his own admission, needs to be clocked with a sundial when he runs.
Check out, however, these two stat lines from Sept. 6.
22 for 28, 236 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions
28 for 38, 261 yards, three touchdowns, one interception
Both quarterbacks had pretty good games, and both were victorious. One quarterback’s performance, though, was hailed as the "perfect game," while the other’s efforts were condemned as a demonstration of that quarterback’s continued mediocrity.
The "perfect" performance was not the work of Patrick White. Rather, it was the effort put in by East Carolina quarterback Patrick Pinkney in the Pirates’ 24-3 win over West Virginia. The other stat line belongs to the "lackluster" performance put in on the same day by Cody Hawkins against Eastern Washington.
Granted, you would expect Hawkins to put up better numbers against a top 10 FCS team than Pinkney put up against a top 10 FBS team. My point is that it is not all about the quarterbacks.
Hawkins didn’t carve up the Eagles because he didn’t have time in the pocket to do so. Pinkney carved up a good WVU defense because he did have the time.
This leads me to the real disparity in talent for Thursday’s game: the offensive lines. West Virginia returns a unit Athlon tabbed as the best offensive line in the nation.
Four starters return, including two All-Big East performers and one All-American. There are three seniors and two juniors on the line that produced 297.2 yards rushing per game last season (third best in the nation).
Compare Colorado: one senior starter (center Daniel Sanders)...and a bunch of guys with little game experience.
Junior Devin Head will return this week after serving a one-game suspension. Head’s return will help, but he has only eight starts in his career. Sophomore tackle Ryan Miller is the only other lineman with starting experience before this season, with nine career starts under his belt.
After that, you are looking at converted tight end Nate Solder and a host of redshirt freshmen and true freshmen.
As I sat through the DVD of the Eastern Washington game, it became clear to me why the Buffs struggled offensively. The line is not creating holes for the running backs and is not giving adequate time to Hawkins to find his receivers.
The Colorado offense line will improve over time, but it may not be this week.
Remember that on Thursday if the fans next to you start crying for the heads of the Buffs’ quarterback and offensive coordinator.
I - Intangibles
The first quarter of the Colorado/West Virginia game may be the most important quarter of the Buffs’ 2008 season.
Let me say that again: The first quarter of the Colorado/West Virginia game may be the most important quarter of the Buffs’ 2008 season.
Colorado and West Virginia are both coming off disappointing games. The Mountaineers, a trendy preseason pick to contend for the national championship, were embarrassed by East Carolina, falling 24-3. A team which averaged 456 yards of total offense in 2007 was held to 251 yards by the Pirates. Patrick White was held under 100 yards rushing and had only 72 yards passing.
The Buffs, meanwhile, trailed virtually the entire game against Eastern Washington. The "easiest" game on the schedule proved to be anything but, as Colorado fell behind 21-7 at halftime before rallying with two touchdowns in the last three minutes to pull out a 31-24 victory.
All this sets up this Thursday’s nationally televised game. For the past week, coaches at West Virginia have been preaching to their players that the East Carolina game was a fluke. It was just one of those games where everything went wrong.
"Believe in the system," the players are told. "Believe in the coaches, and all of the goals which we set for the 2008 season, including a Big East title, a BCS bowl berth, and a shot at the national championship, are still out there for us to achieve."
In the Colorado locker room, the mantra is similar. "Yes, we struggled," acknowledge the coaches, "but we are still 2-0, and all of our goals are still out there for us to achieve. Believe in the system, believe in the coaches, and we can make something special happen on Thursday."
One set of coaches will be proven wrong.
Funny thing about college football: as much as it is about talent (and the recruiting of talent) and coaching, it is a game of emotion and momentum. Doubts about how the 2008 season are to unfold were sown last weekend in the minds of both the West Virginia and Colorado players.
At WVU, after the loss to ECU, the seeds of doubt reverberated in the players’ heads: "Was Bill Stewart the right choice? Did the defense lose too many quality players? Can Noel Devine adequately replace Steve Slaton?"
At CU, after a mighty struggle against a I-AA team, the seeds of doubt came out sounding like this: "If we can’t beat up Eastern Washington, how can we compete against a top 10 FBS team? We keep believing the coaches, but after all is said and done, isn’t Coach Hawkins still only 10-17 in Boulder? Are we too young and inexperienced as a team to expect to compete against such an imposing schedule?"
For the team which comes out and plays well in the first quarter Thursday night, the voices will be quelled. For the team which starts poorly, the questions will begin pounding out the anvil chorus in their ears.
Both teams have something to prove to their critics on Thursday.
Only one team will be satisfied with the result.
P - Preparation
Both the Buffs and the Mountaineers had a bye week to prepare for one another. For Colorado, the timing of the bye week was helpful. The Buffs will be back to nearly full strength as two starters who were out for the Eastern Washington game return.
Junior tight end Riar Geer returns from minor knee surgery that has kept him on the sidelines so far this season, while junior guard Devin Head returns from a one-game suspension. (Head’s suspension related to his being in a car with fellow lineman Ethan Adkins when Adkins was arrested for DUI—Adkins has been suspended from the team indefinitely).
Riar Geer led the team in receptions as a freshman in 2006. Before his injury, Geer was suspended from the team, missing spring practice. While Geer was out, he was more than adequately replaced by his backups.
Junior Patrick Devenny starred this spring and had five catches for 35 yards in the first two games of 2008. Devenny’s numbers are not spectacular in and of themselves, until you consider that four of the five catches were on third or fourth down, and all four were converted into first downs.
True freshman Ryan Deehan had two catches against Eastern Washington, including his first career touchdown.
Geer’s return will only enhance the value of this position. "I just want to get out there and prove myself again," said Geer. "With all the stuff that has happened to me in the offseason, and then with this knee surgery, I want to get out there and prove I am 100 percent and a good football player."
Devin Head will not only need to return to the lineup against West Virginia—he will need to return with a vengeance. "It was killing to know that a lot of that was because of me," said Head of his not being on the field as the Buffs’ offense struggled against Eastern Washington. "I hung my teammates out to dry (against the Eagles). That was the hardest part, not being able to go out and compete with them."
Not having to prove himself is junior college transfer Shaun Mohler. Mohler, a junior linebacker, had nine tackles against Eastern Washington before he was injured rushing the quarterback in the third quarter.
Mohler was taken to the hospital after the game for what was feared to be a broken collarbone. It turned out to be "only" a serious shoulder bruise. "I’ll be able to play next week," said Mohler last Wednesday. "It’s loosening up already."
All hands on deck. The Buffs will need every quality player they can put on the field to try to stay with the Mountaineers.
S - Stats
Two games into the season, statistics tend to be a bit skewed. Still, at this point, it is better to focus on what is going on in 2008 rather than to try and take last season’s numbers as an accurate means of predicting what is to come.
A few numbers stand out. West Virginia, with its blowout 48-21 win over Villanova tempered by the 24-3 loss to East Carolina, has not been a statistical marvel. The Mountaineers, third in the nation in rushing in 2007, are 50th so far in 2008. The passing game is ranked 105th, bringing in the total offense numbers at 95th overall (at 302.5 yards per game).
Not exactly the numbers WVU fans are accustomed to seeing.
What does that mean for the Buffs? Well, the CU defense has been stout against the run, with the best rush defense in the Big 12 (59 yards/game, good for 11th in the nation). The pass defense, as was suspected from the outset of the season, continues to struggle. The Buffs are 91st nationally in pass defense, giving up 245 yards a game.
Translation: West Virginia’s strength is running the ball; CU is good at stopping the run. The Mountaineers don’t have a great passing game, but they will put the ball up to try and exploit the Buffs’ soft pass defense.
On the other side of the ball, the Buffs have been lousy at creating lanes for their running backs, as Colorado is 86th in the nation in rushing offense. However, the opportunities for CU, just like for WVU, are in making the passing game work. The Mountaineers have given up more yards through the air than even the Buffs and are ranked 94th nationally. While Colorado comes in at 45th in total defense, the Mountaineers are 83rd.
No, two games do not make a trend. Both West Virginia and Colorado have played a I-AA team, and while it is true that East Carolina ranks as a tougher opponent than Colorado State, bear in mind that world-beater East Carolina needed a touchdown in the last two minutes this past weekend to pull out a 28-24 win over the mighty Green Wave of Tulane.
Guess we’ll just have to let them play the game and see where our stats fall after Week Three.
Three other stat shots I have to give you before you go
1. Josh Smith leads the nation in kickoff returns with a gaudy 50-yard average. If teams don’t kick to Smith, though, he will eventually fall from the ranks as not having enough returns to qualify.
2. Despite three blowout wins over lackluster competition, Nebraska’s defense is still not the stalwart crew Bo Pelini’s converts would like to see. The "Blackshirts" are 103rd in pass defense after three games. Attributable to the Cornhuskers’ big leads? Not completely.
Nebraska, in surrendering only 43 points total to Western Michigan, San Jose State, and New Mexico State, is still ranked no better than 65th in total defense (347.33 yards per game, compared to 304.00 yards per game given up by the Buffs).
3. While I don’t bet on football, I will give out one piece of advice to bettors: On the over/under of how many times you will read or hear the phrase "John Denver Bowl" this week (presently at 16 ½)—take the over!
Enjoy your week. Enjoy the game.
For more on the CU/West Virginia game, including West Virginia trivia, archived games, and "This day in History," log on to http://www.cuatthegame.com.
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