I've spent a lot of time in this space the last couple weeks pumping up our defense and berating the offense for bringing the team down. And yet, this week I started to wonder: is the defense for real? Or are the gaudy numbers merely a result of playing a bunch of anemic offenses? To be sure, you don't climb to 4th in the country in total defense with a bunch of walk-ons manning the 3-3-5. This defense is solid. They're veteran. They cover well. They tackle. They do just about everything but create turnovers and score points. But this week, you have to wonder how good they really are.
Cincinnati comes to town on Saturday ranked 64th in the country in total offense---not a number that's going to scare anybody. However, the Bearcats' per-game average of 425.3 yards puts them 29th in the country. That's a little more formidable, and may present enough of a threat to change the way WVU looks at its gameplan. The next highest ranked team WVU has played to date? That'd be UConn, ranked 86th at 338.5 ypg.
Obviously, this Saturday's matchup takes things to a whole new level (even if that level is still far from elite). And keep in mind, Cincy's production has suffered from a rash of injuries to QB Zach Collaros, RB Isaiah Pead, and WR Vidal Hazelton, not to mention the inevitable growing pains that come when a new coach takes over. They have also suffered a plague of turnovers that has hampered their production. So, while this year's version of the Bearcat offense may not be as prolific as the previous year's that averaged 448 yards and 38.6 points in 2009, it's still dangerous.
The inevitable question is, should WVU be worried? Let's take a look:
WVU's opponents rankings so far in total offense, with scoring offense and ranking in parentheses:
#86 - UConn; 338.5 ypg (26.6 ppg, 66th)
#92 - LSU; 330.7 ypg (25.3, 74th)
#97 - Syracuse; 324.6 ypg (25.1, 75th)
#99 - USF; 321.5 ypg (261. ppg, 71st)
#101 - Maryland; 316.0 ypg (30.2, 46th)
#103 - Marshall; 311.6 ypg (18.6, 108th)
#119 - UNLV; 258.1 ypg (15.8, 115th)
NR - Coastal Carolina; 344.4 ypg (27.6 ppg)
For comparison's sake, WVU's defense averages giving up 249.8 ypg. That number breaks down to 99.3 ypg in rushing defense, placing WVU 9th, and 150.6 ypg in passing defense, good for 4th in the country. WVU is also 4th in scoring defense at 13.6 ppg.
Those numbers have clearly benefited from playing horrid competition as set forth above. The best offensive player WVU has faced to date? Probably UConn RB Jordan Todman, who ran for 113 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries. That's really about it as far as offensive threats go.
Sure, the WVU defense has done its part to shut down inferior competition. But this weekend---against what appears to be at least an above-average offense---I think it might have its hands full. Or at least it won't be as dominant as we might like.
Cincy is 63rd in scoring offense at 27.4 ppg, ranked 52nd in rushing at 157.3 ypg, ranked 19th in passing at 293.3 ypg. To me, those numbers indicate that the defending Big East champs have enough of a running game to keep defenses honest, which in turn opens up the passing game. If WVU can clamp down on Pead, it may have a chance to pressure Collaros into some mistakes and come up with enough stops to keep this a low-scoring affair. But my guess is that the UC passing game will find enough holes in the 3-3-5 to move the chains on a consistent basis and find the endzone at least 3 times, breaking WVU's 6-game streak of holding opponents below 20 points.
WVU has to score points both not only to keep Cincy's offense off the field but also to keep pace on the scoreboard. I'm thinking that if WVU wants to win this, the offense (or maybe special teams?) will have to approach 30 points, which doesn't exactly make me optimistic about the outcome. Here's to hoping our defense proves me wrong.