Battle Above the Clouds
By Acid Reign
Auburn takes the weekend of the 18th off, after five straight SEC battles, but it’s unlikely to be a restful time. Auburn will spend the extra days preparing for the hostile confines of Milan Puskar Stadium, home of Mountaineer Field, for a Thursday night, national television grudge match with BCS implications. It’s likely that both Auburn and West Virginia will rank in the top ten, maybe even both in the top five. This will be a very difficult trip for the Auburn Tigers, as they’ll face a fast, talented team, in a very different environment than the usual SEC tilt.
Morgantown, West Virginia is located in the northeast corner of the state, high in the Appalachian mountains, at an elevation of over a thousand feet. It’s only a short drive from Pittsburgh, PA. Auburn’s early games will have been played in the baking summer/early fall heat of the American Southeast, but the temperature for this BCS warh will likely be much cooler. By late October, the cold north winds will be filtering down through the mountains, and a game-time temp in the low fifties, or even in the forties, is likely. Fortunately, October is usually among the driest months of the year, in that region. Mountaineer Field is an artificial surface, something SEC teams rarely see, these days. The playing field was newly resurfaced in the summer of 2007.
Auburn’s schedule coming into this game should have the Tigers well-seasoned, having faced a number of tough teams, including Mississippi State, LSU, Tennessee and Arkansas. The possible serious tests the Mountaineers will have faced are a September 18th road trip to play the Colorado Buffaloes, and an October 4th home date with Rutgers. West Virginia’s prior schedule consists of: Villanova, at East Carolina, at Colorado, Marshall, Rutgers, and Syracuse. Like Auburn, they have the weekend off before the Thursday night special.
In a well-publicized move, former WVA head coach Rich Rodriquez left for the Michigan job last fall, precipitating a flood of hostility, bad blood, and litigation. In addition, West Virginia lost a number of spectacular players, including running back Steve Slaton and two star defensive linemen. Despite the exodus, new coach Bill Stewart was able to keep some of the assistants in place, and he has a well-stocked team despite the losses.
Stewart has been a part of the electric WVA offense since he arrived in 2000 to coach quarterbacks. Rather than stand pat, Stewart went out and hired Wake Forest quarterbacks coach Jeff Mullen, who was instrumental in Wake Forest’s rise to the top of the ACC, in the past several years. Mullen and Stewart want to open the offense up even more, involving the wide receivers in both the deep passing game, and in the running game. Wake Forest has been noted for dragging an end through the backfield pre-snap, nearly every play. With WVA, this gives defenses yet another speedy runner to worry about. Spring practice was a mixed bag for the offense, as several starters missed it all with injuries. Pat White was unimpressive throwing the ball, until the spring game, where he hit 12 of 16. Chemistry on the new offense will take time.
While the departure of running back Steve Slaton (1051 yards) and wide receiver Darius Reynard (64 catches) would seemingly leave glaring holes, it’s a deceptive view. Quarterback Pat White returns for his senior season. Much like Tim Tebow, he led his team in both rushing and passing, and is a threat to score every time he takes a snap. Slaton spent part of the year injured, and his replacement off the bench was Noel Devine, who rushed for 627 yards, at a ridiculous 8.6 yards per carry! The entire offensive line returns, including TWO All-Americans. The Auburn defensive line will have its hands full! If there’s a weakness on the offense, it’s a lack of a proven fullback. A good lead blocker is essential to a run-between-the-tackles spread offense.
On defense, Bill Stewart was able to keep defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, whose defense a year ago was ranked 7th in the nation. All is not rosy for the defense, however, as they have to replace 7 starters. The entire secondary must be replaced, along with star linemen Keilen Dykes and Johnny Dingle. West Virginia does return some outstanding linebackers, led by seniors Reed Williams and Mortty Ivy. In addition, there is depth, as linebacker is likely the deepest position on the team. The Mountaineers fly to the ball very well!
Special teams are solid, tool. Strong-legged senior Pat McAfee handles both the punting and the placekicking for WVA. The Mountaineers have a host of speedy, experienced return-men, and they’ve played pretty well in coverage.
Auburn defensive line vs. WVA offensive line: While Pat White and Noel Devine get the press, the offensive line is the real strength of the West Virginia offense. It starts at left tackle, with returning All American Ryan Stanchek, a senior. All five starters return, as well as nine lineman who’ve started at least one game in their career. West Virginia averaged 6.2 yards per rush, as a team. This is a great offensive line. Auburn brings a good line into this battle, anchored by tackle SenDerrick Marks and end Antonio Coleman. While this won’t be a unit Auburn can push around, Marks must force some double-teams, and Coleman must avoid getting dominated by the All-American. I think Auburn will try to move its ends around, and try to get mismatches on the opposite side. Look for lots of twists and stunts on early downs, as Auburn tries to get West Virginia into long yardage situations. Advantage; WVA.
Auburn linebackers vs. WVA runners: Auburn returns a fleet, deep crew of linebackers, led by one-man wrecking-ball Tray Blackmon. WVA returns star sophomore tailback Noel Devine. Devine is fairly small at 170 pounds, but he is very fast. He torched Oklahoma for 108 yards on 13 carries in the Fiesta Bowl. Backing up Devine are sophomore Michael Poitier and junior John McCloskey. Neither has any experience, and they are both in the 170-pound range, as well. The Mountaineer backs are fast, but so are the Auburn linebackers. In addition, WVA suffers a huge loss at fullback, with little experience behind departed battering ram Owen Schmitt. WVA does have three 240-pound players competing at the fullback position. Slight Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. WVA receivers: Both teams are in a bit of a rebuilding mode, here. Auburn returns Jerraud Powers, who should do well, but there are questions on the other side, with Walt McFadden and Aaron Savage. Both are green. The Mountaineers will start seniors Dorrell Jaloh, and Tito Gonzales, at the outside receiver positions. These guys have good size, and decent, but not great speed. Both are good down-field blockers. Offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen has emphasized down field passing and wide receiver play this spring, so it will be incumbent upon Auburn’s secondary to be able to stop the deep post and square-in routes. We’ll need some aggressive safety help, as well. West Virginia has superior experience, Auburn has superior talent, at least on paper, in this matchup. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. WVA secondary receivers and quarterback: West Virginia returns experienced star senior quarterback Pat White, and a host of speedy options at tight end and slot receiver. Auburn will counter with a pair of sophomore safeties, Zach Etheridge and Mike McNeil. Both are talented, but young. White will be a Heisman candidate when the season opens. The Mountaineers will use sophomores Brandon Hogan and Jack Sanders in the slot. Both are small, speedy types. The WVA tight end starter will be senior Sam Marrone, but keep an eye on redshirt freshman Will Johnson. He is a 235 pound former wide receiver who can run. Auburn’s best hope here is that White does not adapt well to the new system. If White proves to be a prolific passer, in addition to his prodigious running skills, it will be a long day for the Auburn safeties. Big Advantage: WVA.
Punting: Auburn’s Ryan Shoemaker and Patrick Tatum combined to average 42.5 yards a punt last season, which is a pretty good average. The coverage for Auburn was excellent, too, and gave up only 6.5 per return, with a long of 29 yards. WVA will have a pair of new punt returners this season, juniors Ellis Lankster and Quinton Andrews. These are larger, “hands guys,” rather than the zippy 170-pound burners found in numbers elsewhere. WVA returns an excellent punter, also, senior Pat McAfee. McAfee averaged 42.7 per punt, but it should be noted that he improved greatly over the course of the season. From the end of October of last year, on, McAffe is averaging a stunning 45.5 yards per punt, with a long of 71 yards. He can flat boom it! West Virginia fields an outstanding coverage unit, as well. The Mountaineers gave up only 5.3 per return, with a long of 26 yards. Auburn will return kicks with veteran senior Robert Dunn, who had a very respectable average of 9.4. Dunn made very few mistakes last season and his timely long returns were key in several late Auburn comeback wins. Despite slightly worse numbers than WVA, the presence of Dunn vs. two rookie returners means that it’s a Slight Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn can ill-afford to repeat last year’s typical performance, on Mountaineer Field. West Virginia has a number of guys who can take a low, short kickoff to the house. Auburn would be best off if Wes Byrum can kick most of those things for touchbacks. While Noel Devine was a good kick returner for the Mountaineers last season, they’d like to be able to start someone else, due to Devine being the featured back on offense. Jock Sanders appears to have the inside track, averaging 19 yard per return last year, as a freshman. While Auburn’s coverage was spotty, giving up 21.2 yards per return, WVA was little better, giving up 21.0. Auburn returns senior Tristan Davis to the field, after a year off for injuries. Davis was one of the leading returners in the nation, in 2006, and looks bigger, stronger, and faster, now. If Davis stays healthy, it’s Advantage: Auburn.
Placekicking: Wes Byrum was consistent for Auburn, hitting 17 of 23 field goal attempts, and he made all of his pressure kicks. WVA senior Pat McAfee was 13-18, but missed two inside 30 yards, and 3 inside 40. Wes Byrum was 14 out of 15, inside 40 yards, and perfect inside of 30. McAfee was 8 of 11, inside 40 yards. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. WVA defensive line: The only returning starter on the D-line for the Mountaineers is sophomore Scooter Berry, a freshman All-American last season at the tackle position. Berry weighs in at 285 pounds, and both of his backups are in the 260-range. At the nose tackle position, in the 3 lineman set, sophomore Chris Neild holds down the fort. He’s a new starter, but played extensively last season. At 305 pounds, the staff is counting on him to be a run-stopper. Both backups in the middle are completely green. At the end position, WVA has moved 225-pound linebacker Zac Cooper, a junior, to end. He has great speed and rushing ability off the edge, but is awfully light for an end. Behind Cooper, there’s a redshirt freshman and a juco transfer. This is a defensive line that is very suspect, especially the depth, and against the run. Auburn counters with a young but veteran offensive line group that played remarkably well last season, starting 3 true freshmen. All five starters return for the Tigers. In addition, the Auburn offensive line is as deep as it’s ever been. West Virginia WILL score a lot of points, so it’s absolutely IMPERATIVE that Auburn dominate this matchup. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. WVA linebackers: This is a strength vs. strength matchup. Auburn has a three or four dangerous, veteran running backs, all with different styles, with speed ranging from good to sprinter-like. From the pounding of Ben Tate, the slashing of Brad Lester, the blinding speed of Tristan Davis, to reserve Mario Fannin, this is an awfully solid corps. If there’s a flaw in Auburn’s backs, it’s that there’s no lead blocker with experience. Auburn does have a lot of good tight ends, and it’s likely that those will be leading most of the charges. WVA has an outstanding linebacker corps. Senior Reed Williams is 225 pounds, and Mortty Ivey is 235, among the returning starters, and both can run. Williams had 107 tackles last year, and was the Fiesta Bowl MVP. Ivey had 89 tackles, starting in all 13 games. New starter sophomore Pat Lazear will start on the strong side, and he’s a 235 pound hitter who played every game last year as a true freshman, and had 14 tackles. He’s reportedly made major strides during the off-season. As to depth, the Mountaineers have another 4 or 5 players who’ve seen significant action at linebacker. Advantage: Even.
Auburn receivers vs. WVA corners: By all accounts, Auburn’s receivers stepped up greatly this spring. Led by a former walk-on, senior Rod Smith, they’ll need to play well, in this game. Juniors Kent Richardson and Ellis Lankster will be new starters at corner, for West Virginia. As reserves last season, they tallied totals of 25 tackles, 1 interception, and 2 pass breakups. Kent Richardson does have two career starts, and he’s the fastest of the WVA corners. It’s a quandary for assistant coach David Lockwood. Does he put his best guy, Richardson, on Rod Smith? Even if he does, Smith has been able to make catches against the best corners the SEC has to offer. And, that leaves the inexperienced Ellis Lankster to deal with the speed of James Swinton and Chris Slaughter. Safety help would be nice, but there is a LOT that goes on in the middle of a Tony Franklin spread, and safety help won’t be a given on Auburn’s outside routes. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. WVA safeties: Auburn will be young at quarterback, whether it’s Chris Todd, Kodi Burns, or both. However, this is the 8th game of the season; those two will have had a lot of experience. Both have run the Franklin offense in the past. Auburn’s slot receivers have the potential to be devastating, if they hold onto the ball. Led by senior receiver Robert Dunn, and junior tight end Tommy Trott, the Auburn inside guys will be a handful for any defense. West Virginia counters with essentially 3 safeties, in their unusual 3-3-5 defensive alignment. Juniors Franchot Allen and Quinton Andrews, along with sophomore Sidney Glover, will hold down the back/middle. Andrews is the most experienced, manning the bandit safety position. He is the only returning secondary player with starting experience (2 starts), making 51 tackles, 4 pass breakups, and 1 interception. There is some experience among the backups, as well. With Auburn’s great line and backs, it’s likely that the safeties will have to lend themselves to run support, which should open up Trott, Dunn, and others for big plays. Assuming that the inside Auburn guys can catch the ball, its Advantage: Auburn.
In conclusion, expect a very high-scoring game in this one. Even an early lead may mean nothing, as both teams should have the ability to score quickly. While Auburn appears to be ahead in overall size, talent, and athleticism, this game is going to be played in an alien, hostile road environment. West Virginia, in the past, has been awfully hard for most defenses to stop, unless there are injuries. Honestly, if I were a Mountaineer fan, I’d be worried about new schemes messing it up. The LAST thing the Mountaineers need, is Pat White being coached away from what he does best. Auburn does have a possible trump card in the hiring of former Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Paul Rhodes. Rhodes knows how to stop this offense. In the past 4 years, WVA has scored 13, 45, 45, and 9 last season, on Pitt. Which will we see out of Rhodes, this year? With Auburn’s talent and speed on defense, we can hope for less than 30. Auburn’s offense will have to perform well, to stay in this one.
Prediction: With an electric crowd and national television audience glued, the Mountaineers bolt out to an early 21 point lead. Auburn keeps hacking and fighting, and battles back, as smaller WVA players go out with injuries. Late in the 4th quarter, Kodi Burns leads Auburndown the field, and Wes Byrum kicks a last-second field goal to send it to overtime, tied at 44. Once in overtime, Auburn scores easily against a tired defense, then WVA, minus star athletes, can’t make the 4th down conversion. Auburn escapes, 51-44.
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