Saturday, September 4, 3:30 p.m. (et)
From The Sports Network
By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The West Virginia Mountaineers try to prove they are worthy of being ranked 25th in the nation as they open the 2010 season with a home date against the Chanticleers of Coastal Carolina on Saturday afternoon.
Last year WVU, which finished with a ranking of 25th in the final AP poll, kicked off against Liberty at home and that meeting wasn't as easy as some would have expected, the Mountaineers slipping by with a 33-20 victory. The team won six of its first seven games of the season, but setbacks to USF and Cincinnati in Big East Conference action didn't help matters and the squad was left to take part in the Gator Bowl against the Florida State Seminoles and former WVU head coach Bobby Bowden in his final game. The 'Noles prevailed in a 33-21 decision, marking the sixth straight game in which the Mountaineers had been held to 24 points or less. Nevertheless WVU, at 9-4 overall, finished in the AP's Top-25 for the fifth straight season, marking the longest streak in school history, and it was also the second straight year in the final rankings for second-year head coach Bill Stewart, making him the first coach in program history to achieve the feat.
The Chanticleers, who play their football at the Football Championship Subdivision level, went through a difficult time in 2009 as they had to change significant pieces to the offense, but head coach David Bennett kept it together as best he could and turned in a 5-6 record overall and a 3-3 mark versus the rest of the Big South Conference. The team lost all six games on the road and was perfect at home, beating the likes of Monmouth, North Carolina A&T, VMI, Gardner-Webb and Presbyterian, although most of those encounters were a bit too close for comfort.
As far as an all-time series between these two programs is concerned, this is the first-ever meeting on the gridiron. This is also one of three new opponents on the schedule for the Mountaineers this season, with LSU and UNLV also appearing on the slate in back-to-back games for WVU.
Coastal Carolina is far from a football powerhouse, having just started up the program in 2003, yet the squad still boasts a 50-29 record since that time for coach Bennett. From an offensive standpoint, the team had some trouble getting in gear last year with an average of just 18.5 ppg, but on a positive note the squad welcomes back three starters along the offensive line, serving as protectors for QB Zach MacDowall for another year. Last season, MacDowell had an efficiency rating of 119.4, even though he had more interceptions (11) than he did TD passes (nine). He completed 55 percent of his attempts as the passing attack accounted for 178.9 ypg, but clearly the group functioned more soundly on the ground with 153 ypg.
Unfortunately, the leading rusher is now gone and that leaves Eric O'Neal to take his place. Luckily, MacDowall will enjoy having Brandon Whitley back at receiver after he caught 31 balls for 483 yards and four scores, despite having started just six of 11 games in 2009.
At first glance the run defense for the Chanticleers was rather weak last season, allowing 176.9 ypg to rank 95th out of 118 FCS programs, but take away the one game in which Liberty rolled up 300 yards and scored six touchdowns on the ground and it makes a little more sense.
Despite losing Phillip Oboh, who logged a team-best 6.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss, the Chanticleers still have a formidable group on the defensive side of the ball, at least in terms of the caliber of play at the FCS level. E.J. Brown should certainly raise his game from the 58 tackles and three sacks he logged a year ago, considering he started just three of 11 outings.
Another key performer to keep an eye on is junior cornerback Josh Norman who not only recorded eight interceptions for the program, but also came up with a pair of blocked kicks, so he can be anywhere and everywhere once the ball is snapped. For his efforts, Norman was named a First Team All-Big South performer and claimed a spot on the AP's All-America Third Team as well.
For the second straight season the Mountaineers are having to go to war with a new quarterback at the helm. Last year it was Jarrett Brown and this time around head coach Bill Stewart is giving sophomore Geno Smith control of the spread option offense.
"I want Geno to play fearless and I want him to lead," says coach Stewart. "I want him to get in that huddle and command that respect. That is what all great quarterbacks do - they commanded that presence."
Should Smith not take the bull by the horns, coach Stewart has a couple of true freshmen in Barry Brunetti and Jeremy Johnson willing to take a shot at starting.
Needless to say, whomever gets the nod under center for the Mountaineers from here on out, he'll need running back Noel Devine to be as good, if not better, than he's been since joining the program. Devine enters 2010 on the watch list for the Maxwell and Doak Walker Awards, as well as the Walter Camp Player of the Year. Devine was a bulldog for the squad last season as he ran for 1,465 yards and 13 touchdowns, the team ranking first in the Big East and 24th in the nation in rushing overall with a collective average of 186.4 ypg.
Last season, linebacker Pat Lazear logged a team-best 78 tackles and made six of his stops behind the line of scrimmage to keep opponents on their toes, but as far as this season opener is concerned he might not be at full strength given that he is nursing a bone bruise.
If Lazear isn't up to speed for the meeting with Coastal Carolina, expect fellow linebacker J.T. Thomas to pick up some of the slack. Last season, Thomas finished a close second to Lazear on the tackles list with 76 and also managed to come up with a pair of interceptions while in coverage. The Chanticleers will also have to keep a close eye on defensive end Julian Miller who was an absolute beast in terms of chasing down the opposition in the backfield. Miller made 14 of his 53 stops behind the line of scrimmage and was easily tops on the team in sacks with nine, for a loss of 61 yards.
"We learned last season that you need to finish the deal and that I-AA football, where I coached, is not bad football," coach Stewart recognizes after his team failed to dominate Liberty in the opener in 2009. "If you guys can just think back a few years ago when that bunch out of Boone, N.C., went up north. They had a pretty good day up there if I remember correctly."
Chances are there won't be any upsets on the level of Appalachian State taking down once mighty Michigan, but the Mountaineers are taking no chances as they suit up for another wild and wonderful year of college football.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: West Virginia 38, Coastal Carolina 13
09/01 10:40:53 ET