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Friday preview: West Virginia

A problem that needs solving.
A problem that needs solving.

What’s at stake: A freaking ton on either sideline.

For West Virginia, maybe the teensiest bit less, since the easiest route to the BCS bowl I’m sure they’ve set as their preferable postseason destination is a Big East title that Saturday won’t have any thing to do with. But as weak as the Big East appears to be, WVU can set their sights even higher, as in “undefeated season” higher; Auburn will unquestionably be the last team they won’t be favored against until the Oct. 30 trip to South Florida, and depending on how the Bulls and Cincinnati fare, might be the last game they’re an underdog in all season. Beat Auburn, and WVU’s no worse than 50/50 to win 11 or 12 games.

For Auburn, though, well, are they real or are they not? Is this a straggle-to-.500-and-a-low-end-bowl team or a charge-to-eight-or-nine-wins and-threaten-the-SEC-powers-that-be kind of team? Is the offense as dangerous as Tech and State made it look? Has Chizik snapped his fingers and erased the Tubby rot in just three weeks? An Auburn win gets them all the good answers to those questions. A loss means that the wins over La. Tech and Miss. St. were just wins over La. Tech and Miss. St. … and that more work will have to be done before 2008 is truly dead and buried.

When Auburn has the ball

They’d better be able to run it.

Because the WVU secondary is going to cause some problems. The ‘Eers have returned three of their four “traditional” defensive backs from a year ago, and will start senior Franchot Allen at the 3-3-5‘s linebacker-esque “bandit” position. Last Saturday WVU took on a solid, veteran quarterback in ECU’s Patrick Pinkney–who tore them apart the year previous–and handed him one of the worst days of his career, a 16-for-39, 4-sack, 1-pick nightmare. The Pirates finished the day averaging just 4.4 yards a passing attempt. (Liberty had more success … but not a lot. And after last week, I don’t think the ‘Eers were really awake for that game.) Adams and Zachery will each have a size advantage over 5-10 ‘Eer corners Keith Tandy and Brandon Hogan, but that looks like about all the advantage they’ll have.

For Auburn to throw the ball, then–as always–they’ll have to loosen things up with the run. It’ll be easier said than done, though; despite having five DBs on the field, the 3-3-5 is usually stronger against the run than the pass, because two of those “5” are safeties that play inside the box. (If you’re counting, that means that WVU will use an eight-man front as their base defense.) All six members of the “3-3” are juniors or seniors, four of them entered this year as a full-time starter, and they’ve gotten off to the kind of start you’d expect–3.4 yards-per-carry allowed vs. Liberty, a miniscule 2.3 vs. ECU.

But there’s a few reasons Auburn should be able to grind some yardage out here:

1. Injuries. WVU could very well be missing both its best defensive tackle (junior Scooter Berry) and its best linebacker (senior Reed Williams). The ‘Eers weren’t all that great at defending the run last year when Williams was injured, and Berry is arguably their most irreplaceable member on the entire D; losing both would seriously hurt.

2. Grimes. Part of the 3-3-5’s success comes from its unfamiliarity, but it’s also popular in the Mountain West and as we learned this week, former MWC man Jeff Grimes knows plenty about it from his days out west.

3. Auburn is Auburn (in Auburn). This is the biggest one. It’s one thing for WVU to shut down a I-AA tomato can and a defense-first, low-wattage outfit like ECU. It’s another to do it on the road against an Auburn team with two legitimate weapons in the backfield and an offensive line playing as well as it has in years. Remember, too, that Auburn had a great deal of first-half rushing success against WVU last year, before excellent WVU coordinator Jeff Casteel was able to make halftime adjustments and Steve Ensminger (as was his wont) did not. Auburn is the bigger, more physical team (especially if Berry’s out) and can push the ‘Eers around if they’re not too confused by the three-man front.

Despite those positives, there’s not any doubt that Auburn’s not going to just run over WVU the way they did Tech and State. The sledding’s going to much rougher. But Malzahn and Grimes should be able to find enough advantages on the ground to move the chains and open things up for Todd, and for the undersized ‘Eers to find themselves wearing down late in the game much as Auburn’s first two opponents did. Expect another big day, if not quite so big a day as we’ve enjoyed the last two weekends.

When West Virginia has the ball

Remember back when Mike Tyson was trying to make his big comeback after being released from prison, but instead of just being a typical boxing weirdo he’s been transformed into that giant walking box of crazy that used his press conferences as a vehicle to make horrible, unspeakable threats against his upcoming opponent and his family?

Yeah, Auburn’s defensive line is going to have to make good on those kind of threats against the WVU offensive line, because if they don’t WVU’s skill position players are going to make for one hell of a long evening. The quarterback is senior Jarrett Brown, who’s 6-4 and 221, has completed 75 percent of his passes so far this year for an average of 10 yards an attempt, and has even found to time to gain just over 140 yards on the ground at 7.4 yards a carry. The running back is Noel Devine, and after watching last year’s trip to Morgantown, I don’t think I have to say any more than that. The receivers had just about as much of a field day last year as Devine did, and with the exception of Dorrell Jalloh they’re all back, too: Jock Sanders, Alric Arnett, Bradley Starks. WVU’s average completion-to-date is going for better than 13 yards; let these guys catch the ball and you’re not just asking for trouble, you’ve sent it an engraved invitation.

Here comes the good news: the ‘Eer offensive line doesn’t have anything like that kind of pedigree. Four starters gone from last year’s All-Everything unit, taking with them all but 25 starts, one of the lowest totals in the nation. Right tackle Selvish Capers is just about as good as his name is sweet, but the other four guys are still question marks. The numbers have been good so far–5.7 yards-per-attempt against Liberty, 4.7 against ECU–but Auburn at Auburn obviously represents a pretty stiff step up in competition. Expect that 4.7 number to drop.

There’s one other thing working in Auburn’s favor in this match-up–namely, that Auburn’s secondary looks to be on top of its game. Certainly Sanders, Arnett and Co. are goin to test Messrs. McFadden, Thorpe, Etheridge, and Bates in ways Tech and State could only dream of, but this is still a unit that’s given up one downfield completion in two games. Offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen has been chomping at the bit to get the team out of RichRod’s run-first-run-second shadow, and with Brown playing as well as he is and the potential trouble along the line in the run game, expect a heavy dose of the ‘Eer passing game.

I would argue that this is exactly what Auburn would want, since it takes the pressure off of Auburn’s not-superstars-just-yet at defensive tackle and lets Antonio Coleman do the thing he does best. West Virginia has too much talent and Auburn still too many worries on defense not to expect a handful of long drives and more than handful of points, but we shouldn’t see a repeat of last year’s walkover, either, not when Auburn has reasons to believe both on the ground (thanks to the WVU line) and in the air (thanks to our secondary).

When special teams are on the field

Both teams have struggled and struggled badly on special teams to date. Looking at WVU, you might think Auburn could get something done on kickoff coverage, but then, Auburn’s done nothing in kickoff return. Looking at Auburn, you might think West Virginia could get something done returning punts, but they haven’t done much to date themselves. So when it comes to returns … who knows? WVU has the more experienced returners, but on paper Durst does have a leg up (heh) on the ‘Eers new punter, so who knows?

One distinct Auburn advantage: the ‘Eers are also breaking in a new placekicker, redshirt freshman Tyler Bitancurt, and even if he’s 4-for-4 so far I don’t think there’s any way he’s as comfortable in Jordan-Hare–in a skin-tight game–as Wes Byrum will be.

Intangible reason for worry: Dude, Auburn lost by 17 on the scoreboard just a year ago, and lost even worse than that in the box score. And now they’re a touchdown favorite and a whole whopping bunch of our fans are expecting a decisive win? Yikes yikes yikes. Let’s hope the team has been playing close attention when the Chiznick’s been bad-mouthing their performance through two weeks.

Intangible reason for confidence: Holy f’reaking crap, I don’t think WVU fans could be any more obnoxious if they tried. (Then again, I’m sure they could surprise me). When even the one sane ‘Eer fan is embarrassed by how visiting fans are treated, yes, I’d say it’s safe WVU fans’ reputation is justly earned. Good thing they’re rotating off the schedule, huh? There’s only room for one set of delusional trash-talking bumpkin jackwads on Auburn’s slate and a certain team already has that role more than ably filled, thanks.

Three wishes: 1. Auburn holds WVU to 4.0 yards-per-carry or fewer 2. Clinton Durst averages 42 yards or more in net punting 3. Todd completes 55 percent of his passes or better with no more than one pick.

Success is / failure is: A win / a loss.

Your bottom line: Statistically, these two teams are pretty much dead even: both have explosive offenses and big playmakers, both have solid defenses (with a few worrying holes), both have annihilated decent D-I competition.

However, two things stick out:

1. Auburn should have the upper hand on the line of scrimmage. With Berry hobbled, Auburn’s offensive line has a clear advantage over the WVU d-line; it’s closer on the other side, but with so many new starters for the ‘Eers, Auburn’s d-line should also earn the upper hand as the game progresses. And as the line of scrimmage goes, so goes the game.

2. Auburn’s at home. In an evenly-matched game that shouldn’t be decided by more than a score, this is a huge, huge advantage.

Those are two concrete reasons Auburn should win. But there’s another intangible reason I can’t get out of my head–namely, that this game reminds me of the LSU games in Terry Bowden’s debut season and Tubby’s second year at the helm. Both of those years, Auburn had a couple of promising-looking performances under their belt, but hadn’t proven that the new coach and the new team were really real as they faced down quality, well-regarded Bayou Bengal squads that were widely expected to see Auburn off. Auburn dominated both of those games, and neither Terry nor Tubby would look back for years.

Auburn’s not going to dominate West Virginia. But at WBE, this just feels like the same surge, the same return to winning football, the same sudden arrival we saw in ’93 and 2000. This is dangerous language for someone who likes to base his optimism on something more than raw, biased feeling … but this feels like a win.

And so, in one final attempt to look spectacularly wrong …

Carnac

Auburn 33, West Virginia 30

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