WHEN: Saturday (Finally! I hate bye weeks)
WHERE: Almost Heaven, West Virginia (at least in the late John Denver's opinion)
CLEAT TO OBLONG SPHERE: 12 noon
SERIES: Mountaineers lead 14-3-1
LAST ONE: UC kept alive "The Perfect Season" at Nippert with a 24-21 win 11/13/09
Really, no pressure in this game at all....
(picture courtesy of journal-news.net)
Well, after our brief intermission we're back to talk Bearcat football again. Saturday in Morgantown is the first of UC's four one-game seasons in my opinion.
I recall saying Syracuse was a "must win" game. If that was the case (and if you fell asleep UC lost 31-7) then this is a "win or go home" game. Mathematically, that's still not the case as UC could "back in" to a bowl at 6-6.
Realistically though (and I consider myself a "realitician") the Bearcats need to sweep out.
Trust me, I despise cliches, but the old "one game at a time" mantra is definitely appropriate here. These should be treated like four bowl games. The West Virginia Bowl, the Rutgers Bowl, the Connecticut Bowl and the Pittsburgh Bowl.
There's really no reason to look any further ahead than the next one.
Sadly, in this year's predicament, nearly all of the Big East is on football life-support. This is not bashing or tabloid journalism. These are the numerical facts as none of the teams are ranked in any poll that matters.
(Thus the headlines for TCU. Remember when UC was in Conference USA with them?)
Playing in Morgantown is tough. I was there in 2003 when P/K Chet Ervin booted the Bearcats past the Mountaineers 15-13 and I wasn't sure if I would make it up the hill behind Milan Puskar Stadium to retrieve the radio van to load our stuff.
The Davy Crockett-hats don't take too kindly to losing. I believe WVU is the first field I saw where the student section was literally "fenced off" from the general population.
One of my sons was at the 2008 game that UC had in the bag, then allowed WVU to come back frantically and tie. He was out in the parking lot already with some friends when thousands of Mountaineer fans stormed back into the stadium like they were giving out free Wal-Mart coupons.
West Virginia actually took the
overtime lead before Tony Pike hit Kazeem Alli for the winning score,
putting the official kibosh on any couch-burning for the night.
The Mountaineers are always competitive as UC's three wins have come by a total of eight points. Even last season, WVU gave the Bearcats fits at Nippert.
Now, a 5-1 season for Coach Bill Stewart has turned to 5-3 after back-to-back losses to Syracuse and Connecticut. After the game with UC, WVU goes back-to-back on the road at Louisville and Pittsburgh, so you see how crucial this game is to them also.
So, how does it go down?
UC OFFENSE VS. WEST VIRGINIA DEFENSE
Zach Collaros or not, you've got to figure UC's offense is better than the seven points they were held to against Syracuse. The good news is, it appears Collaros will play and he played well against them last year. The down side is, you probably need Zach to make some plays with his legs and they might not be 100 percent. Last year, the running of Isaiah Pead led to 175 yards on the ground. If Pead can get anywhere near that total, life would improve immensely for the UC offense.
As for the aerial attack, the obvious must happen there. DJ Woods, Armon Binns and Marcus Barnett need to make ALL of the catches. They can't make acrobatic grabs and then drop balls right in the numbers. The margin for error for this offense is very slim. Also (in a repeated plea to the playcallers) you DO have tight ends. Ben Guidugli, Adrien Robinson and even Blake Annen can make plays. Use them! Remember the game-winning catch in Morgantown last time around was by a TIGHT END. UC tight ends have been grossly underutilized this season.
Collaros' mobility may depend on the pass rush of junior DE Bruce Irvin who has recorded seven TFL and seven SACS for the Mountaineers. Plus, there's redshirt-senior DT Scooter Berry who historically has been a handful for the Bearcats. Sophomore DB Terrance Garvin leads the WVU tacklers and junior Robert Sand is one of the more interesting college safeties in the game at 6-5, 221 pounds. The interception leader is redshirt junior DB Keith Tandy who's picked off four.
THE ENVELOPE PLEASE:
No one's scored more than 21 points on the Mountaineers which is not a good sign when you're playing on enemy turf. If the Bearcats can't make plays on the ground or otherwise, it might well be open season on Collaros. If that happens, it appears the playbook is shortened and you have limited options. UC should study the WVU/Marshall game to see what the Herd did there. Marshall was up 21-6 in the fourth quarter and in line to make it 28-6 before fumbling. From there, WVU went on a roll and eventually won, but the game was Marshall's to have (and Marshall's a 3-6 team now).
WEST VIRGINIA OFFENSE VS. UC DEFENSE
Honestly, from watching tape of the USF and Syracuse losses, WVU is probably licking their lips. A mobile QB (BJ Daniels) had his way with UC's secondary as did a somewhat bland QB (Ryan Nassib). Geno Smith is NOT bland and IS mobile. The only thing holding him back is WVU doesn't appear to have much of a bullpen behind Smith so allowing him to play "Pat White ball" could prove hazardous to the Mountaineers is Smith were KO'd. WVU likes small playmakers and they have an arsenal of them in 5-8, 180 pound senior Noel Devine (averaging 86.6 yards per game), 5-7, 179-pound senior Jock Sanders who's a WR that also runs and 5-9, 173-pound RB/KR Tavon Austin. Redshirt sophomore FB Ryan Clarke is also a horse at 247 pounds who plowed through UC effortlessly last season.
For the Bearcats, a pass rush must be found. Sophomore Dan Giordano has snuck back a time or two and made a play, but most QBs have left the UC game unscathed. The youth of the defensive backs has been apparent and too much is being placed on the shoulders of junior JK Schaffer and sophomore Walter Stewart. While it may seem like they are, they can't be in on EVERY play. The good news is this defense will be something to be reckoned with in coming years. The bad news is that it needs to be reckoned with now.
Clearly, if UC is to have a chance at winning, the defense is going to have to come up with its most superlative effort of the season. Tackles can't be missed, assignments can't be blown and plays quite simply need to be made. Leading the league in excuses, is not an excuse. Obviously, your goal here should be stopping the "Three Mousketeers/Mountaineers" in Devine, Sanders and Austin. Geno Smith is a good QB, but he is not Pat White and can't beat you alone.
The injury loss of Darrin Williams has taken away UC's 1-2 punch in returns as DJ Woods and Williams gave you different looks. Woods is far and away UC's best option, but he's also needed on a lot of other plays. Most importantly, he needs to hang onto the ball in ALL plays. Some unsung heroes in the coverage team are junior WR Orion Woodard and senior LB Collin McCafferty who seems to be in on most special teams tackles. Kicking-wise, Jake Rogers has not had enough opportunities of late and Patrick O'Donnell's probably had too many.
The Mountaineers have a pretty accurate kicker in Tyler Bitancurt (sophomore) who's made some key boots. (They also have a local product on the bench from my alma mater, walk-on John Howard from Anderson High School.) Their return game involves the tiny, elusive guys in Tavon Austin and Jock Sanders.
On Milan Puskar Field, you have to side with the WVU kickers and their diminutive returners scare you too. UC's still looking for that "Mardy Gilyard game changing play" in the return game and it just hasn't transpired yet. In this atmosphere, such a play could prove pivotal in the outcome.
LET'S SEE WHAT STICKS NOW
Give WVU a decided advantage in home atmosphere because they truly have some really rowdy and noisy fans. They come in droves and they wear there colors with great pride and are ready to give you an earful should you challenge them.
That said, UC's best weapon might be the "early strike" or perhaps long, monotonous drives that take the Mountaineer fans out of the game (or at least out of their seat to grab some concessions). Everyone loves Bill Stewart, but after two straight losses, a slow start at home will surely bring out "boo birds".
For this reason, Stewart seemingly has given Smith the green light to run. However, as mentioned before, one wrong hit to Smith and things could take a turn for the worse for WVU.
Similarly, it's appeared that Zach Collaros has been "roped in" a little at QB and he probably needs to scramble for UC to have success on offense. Chazz Anderson did it out of desperation, Collaros can do it out of improvisation or design.
Much like the Mountaineers though, if Collaros goes down, the tide appears to turn.
Both teams desperately need this game, but UC's scenario is much more bleak. If they rise to this challenge, they have a shot to redeem the season.
Otherwise, the only positive will be the extra recruiting time the staff will have.