West Virginia vs Marshall Preview: 8 Things to Look for in the Season Opener
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Ah, a new season of football is upon us and West Virginia Mountaineer fans are ready to enjoy every second of it. The 2011 season kicks off against Marshall and we're all excited to see the new, high flying, Dana Holgorsen offense that we've seen being so successful at so many other schools.
It's kind of like getting a slot machine that produces a winner every time.
Though I'm not sure Dana is a big fan of slots, I do know he is a winner, even if it's not at the casinos.
But we are all going to give the guy a chance because he has shown over the past decade that he can win, and he's pretty good at it too.
Ahead I'll take a look at some things we can look for during the season opener to get a reading on how together and ready this team really is.
Game time: Sunday, September 4th, 3:30 PM EST
1. Offensive Line Play
West Virginia's offensive Line looks to improve this year
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This season the offensive line is going to be a very important factor when adapting to Dana Holgorsen's passing scheme.
In years past, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith had the option to roll out and scramble if the offensive line broke down, but he may be asked to keep his eyes down field a bit longer this season.
We should look for better protection of the quarterback during the season opener as the offensive line will be playing a simpler zone blocking scheme this year.
Watch out for Marshall defensive end Vinny Curry; he is a pre-season All-American by many media outlets and he racked up 11 sacks last season, two of them of WVU quarterback Geno Smith.
The WVU offensive line is laden with injuries so you very well could expect them to give up a play or two. If they do, Geno Smith may end up making some mistakes.
2. WVU Defensive End: Bruce Irvin
Bruce Irvin is a quarterback sacking, football player tackling, faster than Michael Phelps in a swimming pool manbeast.
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Yeah, there are a couple people who may have never heard of Bruce Irvin.
If they're fans of opposing teams of West Virginia this season, they will wish they never had.
Irvin came to West Virginia a season ago as a transfer.
In his first year with limited playing time being used as a "pass rush specialist," Irvin recorded 14 quarterback sacks, finishing the year ranked second in college football.
This year Irvin will be an every down player, and this will more than double the amount of time he gets to play in his senior season and may very well lead to many more sacks.
Marshall doesn't have the strongest of offensive lines, bringing in three new starters this season.
We should hope to see Bruce Irvin fired up and get into the backfield early at least a couple of times.
3. The West Virginia Backfield
West Virginia is looking for the next Steve Slaton
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This year the Mountaineers come into the season with a ton of talent at running back, the problem is, many of those players are young and inexperienced.
Sophomore running back Trey Johnson was almost poised to take over the starting spot before the year began, but as of now Dana Holgorsen has not named a starter and has decided he will make decisions based on who ever is playing the best at that time.
Really goes to show he doesn't have much confidence in any particular player.
One player will have to break out of the pack. Many believe it will be freshman Vernard Roberts, who came to WVU this past year from Washington D.C., with his brother, Vance Roberts.
Both Roberts and Johnson have the speed to play that real quick type of running game we've grown used to after a few years of Noel Devine, which may be very useful if they're split out into the slot in Holgorsen's simple, effective offense.
A spread-out offense means a spread-out defense and there will be many chances for the Mountaineers to pick up some quick, short yardage with the running game.
There are many other players that will have to step up early in the season to earn themselves a reoccurring role in the offense, a depth chart of seven running backs isn't likely to last long.
4. Special Teams Play
Tavon Austin should be a great kickoff returner this year
The West Virginia Mountaineers lacked something more than just offensive production during the past couple years of the "Milkman" era: they also lacked discipline on special teams.
The Mountaineers gave up a couple big plays last year including a certain punt return that essentially lost a huge game against LSU in Louisiana.
They're looking to fix those problems after hiring former Detroit Lions secondary coach Daron Roberts to run the special teams.
WVU red-shirted junior Corey Smith will be punting for the Mountaineers for the first time this year, it will be interesting to watch his transition to the punting game after playing as a placekicker.
Dana Holgorsen has repeatedly made it clear that he wants special teams to play well this year and to tighten down on coverage of kickoffs and punts.
The Mountaineers shouldn't have any issues getting some production out of the kickoff return game with Tavon Austin set to return kicks as one of the fastest players West Virginia fans have seen in some time.
It will be interesting to see how well the punt and kick coverage does during this game and analyze the ability of Corey Smith to adapt to his new role as a punter.
5. Wide Receiver Play
Stedman Bailey looks to step up this year as a starting receiver
A huge factor in the success of West Virginia's new high percentage passing offense will be the play of the wide receivers.
It seems the Mountaineers have some talent at wide receiver with Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin likely playing a lot of reps during the season, as well as the 6'3" Ivan McCartney and longtime receiver J.D. Woods coming in from time to time.
But unfortunately there just hasn't been one receiver that's really impressed thus far this year.
We will see just how well these speedy receivers from West Virginia do in Holgorsen's rather simple offense.
I would bet they play pretty well against a Marshall defense that just isn't up to par with the Mountaineers' talent.
6. The Defense
Keith Tandy interception return against LSU last season
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I'm a believer in West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, so even after losing Robert Sands and J.T. Thomas to the NFL draft, I have faith he will still be able to keep this defense in order.
There are going to have to be some players stepping up in the defensive secondary to help Mountaineer corner back Keith Tandy; the game on Sunday should help us figure out just who those players may end up being.
This should not be the most difficult test for the Mountaineers defense, as the Marshall Thundering Herd is starting many fresh faces including freshman quarterback Rakeem Cato.
Inexperience at the play caller position for Marshall will likely lead to some mistakes by the young quarterback, something common for many of the young players coming into the college ranks.
Let's also not forget about Bruce Irvin. I'd bet he wants to get his hands on the kid at least once in this game.
7. Geno Smith
Much of Dana Holgorsen's offense relies on the health of QB Geno Smith
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If you hadn't heard about him, West Virginia has a quarterback named Geno Smith. He's 6'3" and not bad on his feet.
He is also pretty good with his arm.
There is a chance, if all goes as planned, Geno Smith may end up with 4,000 yards this season, perhaps three dozen touchdown passes and a sprinkling of interceptions.
That is exactly what Dana Holgorsen's offensive game plans have done for so many quarterbacks in the past and that is exactly what he plans to do with Geno Smith.
I believe by the end of the game on Sunday, we will know what to expect out of Geno and perhaps who his favorite receiver might be.
Holgorsen succeeds with a simple game plan—dynamic, but simple. There shouldn't be a very large learning curve with this team and Smith should start finding open targets down-field.
Keeping Geno out of harm's way and not blind-sided by a Marshall defender is going to be important in keeping him healthy throughout this game and the rest of the season.
Offensive line play will be a key area of concern when assessing the performance of Smith in this game.
8. Dana Holgorsen: The Offensive Mastermind
Notice the lack of smile on Bill Stewart's face
He is the man, the head coach, the dude.
Dana Holgorsen is the guy who has been entrusted with improving a 9-3 team from last season into what we used to see just a few years ago when the Mountaineers were winning 11 games per season.
We will get our first real chance to see what Holgorsen's offense will look like, West Virginia style.
I will keep in mind, this is after all the first game of the season, and in a totally new offense for these players.
It is also the first real time they will be playing at full speed and they will be playing longer than they've ever practiced.
There will be mistakes and issues to be addressed in one of Holgorsen's highly enthusiastic press conferences at the end of this game, as there always are.
If Holgorsen really is the offensive genius that he seems to have proven himself to be at each stop throughout his career, then I would expect a win against Marshall.
And many more wins to come.