A Stern Test
War Eagle, everybody! Time now for another Auburn football preview. On September 19th, Auburn will receive a visit from the West Virginia Mountaineers. Auburn will have been tested at home by Louisiana Tech, and Mississippi State, previously. For the Mountaineers, it will be their first road game of the year, after tuning up on Liberty, and East Carolina at home. While the Liberty game will be as ugly as West Virginia cares to make it, Skip Holtz’s pesky Pirates won’t go down so easily. That matchup will make for a good scouting opportunity. While there are some questions to be answered, do not be fooled. This is a LOADED football team, with a ton of talent recruited during the height of the Rich Rodriguez era.
For the Mountaineer offense, the Pat White era is finally over. Starting at quarterback this season for West Virginia is veteran senior Jarrett Brown. Brown has come in in the past, and played when Pat White was injured, and is 2-0 as a starter. The Mountaineers have never lost, holding a lead, when Brown came in as a reliever at quarterback. There are issues on the offensive line, having to replace three starters. Brown is not as mobile as Pat White was, and the line will need to pass-block better. A plethora of dangerous runners and receivers return, led by lightning-quick tailback Noel Devine. Auburn allowed 207 yards rushing to Devine last year, with a patchwork back seven.
Defensively, the Mountaineers return 8 starters on a fast, aggressive defense. There has been a greater emphasis on blitzing, this spring, with more man-to-man coverage. It’s not a good trend for the Tigers, who had difficulty getting separation at receiver, a year ago. The greatest concern West Virginia has is at defensive end. Scooter Berry moves inside, leaving a dearth of experience. Jeff Casteel was selected the Rivals defensive coordinator of the year, last season, as West Virginia held its opponents to 15.9 points per game.
On special teams, Senior All-American Pat McAffe did all of the kicking and punting last year, and will have to be replaced this year. While leading returner Ellis Langster is gone, the Mountainers have plenty of speedy options for return men. The real concern is kick return coverage. Last season West Virginia gave up 28 yards per return.
Auburn defensive line vs. WVA offensive line: If Auburn is to slow down the West Virginia machine, it must start here. Last season, Auburn started well on the D-line, and faded as the game went on. This year, West Virginia will be less formidable, with the loss of 3 big-time starters. Veteran senior right tackle Selvish Capers returns with 19 starts, and junior center Eric Jobe returns with 5 career starts. All is not woe for the Mountaineers, though, as sophomores Don Barclay and Josh Jenkin have quite a bit of backup experience. Barclay, who’ll start at that all-important left tackle spot, played in all 13 games a year ago. By all accounts, the line held their own in spring drills this year. Auburn will have to use their speed on the line, to counter a strong, if less-experienced bunch. Advantage: Auburn, and if the D-line doesn’t do well, Auburn will be in for a very long day on defense!
Auburn linebackers vs. WVA runners: Noel Devine embarrassed the Auburn linebackers a year ago, and Auburn will be very green at the weak side this season, as JUCO transfer Eltoro Freeman is the front-runner. It will be imperative for veterans Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes to do a better job containing Devine. Devine, and his three main backups, are all small and fast. In addition, freshman Jordan Roberts emerged as powerful short-yardage back, who broke off a 65-yarder in the spring game. West Virginia has a pretty good battering ram fullback, in junior Will Johnson, who is also a receiving threat. Behind Johnson, Ryan Clark is a monster, if inexperienced. Advantage: West Virginia.
Auburn corners vs. WVA receivers: Auburn looks to be solid, if unspectacular at corner this season, and it’s a fairly deep position, as well. Senior Walter McFadden showed signs last year, of the potential to take it to the next level. He showed great toughness, too, playing hurt for much of the year, and still being effective. Sophomore Neiko Thorpe, who saw significant time as a true freshman a year ago, is penciled in as the other starter. Auburn will likely have to go nickel to stop the WVA receiving corps, and speedy senior Aaron Savage seems much better able to match up, than a hodge-podge of linebackers and safeties we tried to cover the Mountaineer slot men with, last year. West Virginia looks scary, outside, this spring. Senior Alric Arnett caught 35 balls for 6 TDs, last season, and looks ready to have a break-out season. Sophomore Bradley Starks figures to start on the other side, a 6′ 3” burner. The wild card is spring star, senior Wes Lyons, who is a towering 6’8”, sort of WVa’s answer to Anthony Mix! Lyons showed the speed to separate this spring, and caught everything thrown his way. Auburn has no one who can match up, height-wise. There is depth and speed behind the top three guys, too. If the ball is thrown downfield on target, the Auburn corners will need serious safety help. Advantage: West Virginia.
Auburn safeties vs. WVA secondary receivers and quarterback: Tiger fans can desperately hope that Auburn’s top three guys are back healthy for this one. Mike McNeil, Zach Etheridge, and Mike Slade will have to do a lot better job than a year ago, in pursuit. West Virginia threw underneath all day, and the Auburn safeties had great difficulty closing and making the tackle. They will again face some dangerous players. Junior Jock Sanders was very dangerous a year ago, and will be again, if he successfully serves a DUI suspension. Sophomore Tyler Urban was a solid tight end a year ago. The key for West Virginia is quarterback Jarrett Brown. While not as fleet of foot as Pat White, Brown reputedly has a cannon for an arm. Brown hit 22 of 30 passes, last season, for 114 yards, 1 TD, and 1 interception. That’s a great completion percentage, 73%, but a low yards-per-pass average, at only 3.8. The Mountaineers look to throw downfield more, and if the spring game is any indication, Brown can do it. He hit his first 15 passes, and finished 21-28 for 274 yards and 4 Tds on the. The jury’s still out though, as to what will happen against top competition. Much like Auburn, West Virginia did not play ones against ones, in the spring game. Advantage: West Virginia.
Punting: Auburn’s punter, Clinton Durst returns, sporting a 42.1 yard average with good hang time. West Virginia’s penciled-in replacement is senior Scott Kowlosky, who was the team’s punter for 8 games in 2006, with an average of 39.5 yards per punt. Both teams are still trying to settle on return men, but both squads have talent. Auburn gave up 7.0 yards per return, West Virginia gave up only 5.3. Advantage: Even.
Kickoffs: Auburn looks to be set at kicker, with Wes Byrum doing well in the spring game. Coverage was a bit of a concern, as Auburn gave up 21.5 yards per return last season. Auburn is not set at kick returner. The most experienced guy in the mix is Mario Fannin, who averaged 22.5 per kick return, a year ago. West Virginia seems to be ready to go with redshirt freshman Tyler Bitancurt as the kicker. The return man seems to be by committee, again. The idea of facing Noel Devine here is not a comfortable one. The Mountaineers were woeful covering kickoffs last year, giving up 28 yards per return, one of the worst performances in the nation. Advantage: Auburn, on experience, and better coverage.
Placekicking: Wes Byrum was superb as a freshman, and shaky as a sophomore. While he’s held onto the starting kicking job, observers say that his technique is still flawed. Redshirt freshman Tyler Bitancurt gets the nod for West Virginia. Were I coach Stewart, I’d be hoping the game doesn’t come down to a pressure-filled kick on the road in Jordan Hare. Byrum’s been there, done that. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. WVA defensive line: Auburn sports a re-tooled, larger, stronger line than a year ago, but has little depth behind the starters. . Last season, the Auburn linemen held their own for a half, but then wilted under pressure when the Mountaineers started loading the box. Last season, West Virginia opened in a 3-4, this year they appear to be committed to a 4 man front, and a more aggressive scheme. Moving inside is second-team All-Big East junior Scooter Berry. He’ll team alongside the stout junior Chris Neild, and the Mountaineers figure to be strong and dangerous in the middle. Last season, Neild manhandled the Auburn interior line, racking up 8 tackles. Senior Larry Ford and sophomore Julian Miller figure to start at end, and both were long-yardage rush specialists last season. While both are quick and athletic, it will be a transition to being an every-down lineman. This is another critical battle Auburn MUST win, to have a realistic chance at winning the ball game. Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. WVA linebackers: Running back is the deepest, and arguably the most talented position on the Auburn squad. Ben Tate and Mario Fannin bring good speed and better power to the table. Behind them are young players like Onterrio McCaleb and Eric Smith who should do well. The incoming freshman class has backs that may contribute right away, also. Where Auburn is thin is at lead blocker positions. Mario Fannin has bulked up, and showed a willingness to hit this spring, and John Douglas had some good moments as well. Likewise, linebacker is the deepest position on the West Virginia squad. They sport a plethora of large, fast, relentless guys who hound runners and terrorize quarterbacks. The leader of this veteran bunch is senior Reed Williams, who is coming off surgery on both shoulders. Williams is said to be finally healthy, for his sixth season. Junior J. T. Thomas brings three years of hard-hitting experience on the weak side, and senior Zac Cooper moves from defensive end to shore up the strong side linebacker position, on run downs. West Virginia can bring a bevy of talented, experienced guys off the bench at this position, too. Advantage: West Virginia.
Auburn receivers vs. WVA corners: For the last three years, this has been the weakest position on the Tiger squad, and this year may not be any different. Spring performances by Tim Hawthorne, Darvin Adams, Quindarious Carr, and Derek Winter give reason to hope. The receivers clearly had made strides in route-running, and catching the ball, in the A-Day game. Junior Brandon Hogan locks down one corner spot for the Mountaineers. He’s a fast, hard-hitting veteran who had a great spring. He’s perhaps a bit undersized, at 5′ 10”. The Mountaineers had to replace their other starter, and sophomore Keith Tandy is the nominal starter. The Mountaineers are planning to use a lot of man coverage. There may be a chance for Auburn receivers to work on young corners on the side opposite Hogan. Advantage: Even.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. WVA safeties: The Auburn quarterback race is still undecided, and the flavor of this matchup will depend on whether we end up with a spread-option type attack with Kodi Burns, or a play action passing scheme with Neil Caudle. Auburn features some intriguing, dangerous secondary receivers, including tight end Tommy Trott, and sometimes-slot receiver Mario Fannin. West Virginia counters with a veteran safety corps. Often, on passing downs, the Mountaineers use three safeties. Senior Boogie Allen, junior Sidney Glover, and sophomore Robert Sands are all seasoned, fast, and great hitters. Advantage: West Virginia.
This game will be an awfully difficult task for a rebuilding Auburn team. On offense, there may be some big play opportunities on the outside, but it’s incumbent on the Tigers to find some kind of a way to run the ball, eat up the clock, and keep the explosive Mountaineer offense on the sideline. Even a single turnover could lose the game. Defensively, Auburn must attack the ball better than they did last fall. There should be some opportunities to wreak havoc in the backfield, against new Mountaineer offensive line starters. Explosive players like Noel Devine have to be dealt with before they turn up field. West Virginia’s new quarterback starter must be harassed into some mistakes. If Auburn can create turnovers and run the ball, they have a great shot at pulling off the upset. Too many three and outs, and this game could degenerate quickly.
Prediction: Auburn battles gamely, but the Mountaineers are too much, again. Auburn falls at home, 31-10.
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