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It goes without saying: to beat West Virginia, you have to contain – the old Dan Patrick line re: stopping/containing certainly applies here if it applies anywhere – the WVU running game, force long, chain-moving drives by limiting big plays and force Pat White to make some plays with his arm. Many try, few succeed.

In fact, since Steve Slaton and Pat White came on to upset Louisville midway through 2005, South Florida is ostensibly the only team that has truly succeeded - other defenses have held Slaton and White below their usual gargantuan bounties, and Louisville was able to match Mountaineer fire with its own concoction of fire, turnovers and special teams to hand WVU its first loss with the Slaton/White team. The sum total of defenses that have somewhat contained the duo:

WVU under Slaton/White when rushing for less than 200 OR 4 ypc
Year Opponent Rush Yds. Pass Atts. Comp. % Yds./Pass TD:INT Result
2005 UConn 228 (4.0) 18 50.0 8.0 1:1 Win
2006 E. Carolina 153 (3.6) 24 70.8 9.0 3:2 Win
2006 So. Florida 132 (3.6) 22 63.6 8.1 2:2 Loss
2006 Rutgers* 195 (4.2) 30 46.7 8.1 1:1 Win (OT)

* - WVU beat Rutgers with Jarrett Brown at QB in place of White.
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South Florida has to put its name on this list again, because it almost certainly does not have the luxury of running with the spread option. For all Matt Grothe’s accolades, USF scoring finished tied last year for the program’s worst effort since the program moved up to the I-A level in 2001 at 23 points per game, the same number it scored in regulation despite a plus-five turnover advantage at Auburn two weeks ago. Four of the Bulls’ scoring possessions in that game began in opponent territory, as did all three of its second half scoring drives last week against North Carolina.

Not that it mattered in the latter case, but it will tonight. Last year’s win in Morgantown was sparked by four Mountaineer turnovers, one of them a fumble recovered for USF’s first touchdown. It seems pretty clear that the Bull defense sets the tone:

USF vs. Top 40 Rushing Offenses
Year Opponent Yds. Yds./Carry +/- Avg.* Result
2005 Penn State 264 6.8 +1.7 Loss
2005 Central Fla. 45 2.3 -1.6 Win
2005 Louisville 104 3.2 -1.6 Win
2005 West Virginia 305 6.9 +1.7 Loss
2006 Kansas 118 3.4 +1.4 Loss
2006 Rutgers 226 5 -0.3 Loss
2006 Louisville 172 4.8 -0.2 Loss
2006 West Virginia 132 3.6 -3.1 Win
2007 Auburn 125 3.6 -0.2 Win

* - vs. opponent’s final ypc for the season
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As much as nine games can tell you about a team, there is a direct correlation above with yards per carry and victory: if it holds run-oriented opponents under four per carry, or even just a little below its usual gains on the ground, USF wins. When it doesn’t, the offense is not racing to pick up the slack.

It so happens that no team found itself more frustrated re: its usual performance than West Virginia in last year’s loss. Lou Holtz was stunningly useful Thursday in exactly the way a coach in a television studio should be, not by lisping his way through a phony pep talk but by pointing out that in last year’s game against WVU, the Bulls walked safeties up around the line of scrimmage and dared White to make throws. He made a few, but he made a few bad decisions, too, growing increasingly frustrated as the spread option flopped for essentially the only time in his career. The following clip is the best I can find of last year’s game, and on every snap that is not an obvious passing down, even as WVU attempts to spread the field with three and four receivers, South Florida has seven men in the box, all eleven within eight yards of the line of scrimmage and usually one of the safeties moving towards the line as the ball leaves the center’s hands. The strongside backer in this scheme is upright, but his position makes it in essence a 5-2 that often quickly becomes a 5-3 as he and the run-oriented safety play some masterful contain:

As well as the Bulls obviously played last year, there are a couple critical points: a) the defensive touchdown and b) West Virginia’s failure to score inside the USF ten not once but twice, on a fake field goal and a Slaton fumble at the goalline. Those three plays alone represent a 17-point swing.

I think we saw part of West Virginia’s attack plan for tonight’s game last week in its demolition of East Carolina, where Pat White’s line was 18-20 for two touchdowns. Anyone who watched the game knows, though, that White’s "passing" was almost exclusively of the quick-hit variety to running backs or slot receivers in the flat against DBs giving about the cushion South Florida gave in the clips above. ECU never walked up, either not caring that it was giving up eight yards at the Mountaineers’ will or figuring it was worth it to avoid making it easier for WVU’s big receivers to get their hands on DBs for a block on the edge, or just to run by them deep. South Florida may not be so stubborn, but it will have to sacrifice a step or two against the option from its outside contain men if the Mountaineers come out with the same horizontal attack (unless it’s going to completely disregard White’s arm more than 10-15 yards downfield, which in all likelihood would be a mistake).

Either way, Slaton, White and Noel Devine appear to be the best athletes on the field. Grothe is tough but is asked to do too much in the Bulls’ offense to keep pace two years in a row.
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West Virginia 31 South Florida 18