(Sports Network) - Tied with South Florida and Cincinnati for the most overall victories in the Big East Conference, the 16th-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers now try to log their first league win of the 2011 campaign as they host the Connecticut Huskies on Saturday afternoon at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown.
West Virginia, which has not finished lower than second place in the Big East standings since 2002, opened this season with three straight wins over the likes of Marshall, Norfolk State and Maryland, before settling in against LSU on September 24. That matchup against one of the top programs in the country sent the Mountaineers, now led by first-year head coach Dana Holgorsen, reeling in a 47-21 loss. More recently, the 'Neers caught a break in the schedule during Homecoming and completely dominated the Bowling Green Falcons last Saturday in a 55-10 final.
As for the Huskies, now under the direction of first-year head coach Paul Pasqualoni who was previously the head man at Syracuse before making the jump to several staffs at the NFL level, they are coming off a disappointing home loss to Western Michigan last weekend, 38-31. The defeat was the third in the last four outings for UConn, which has only wins against Fordham and Buffalo to show for its efforts thus far.
As far as the all-time series between these two teams is concerned, WVU won the first six encounters between 2004-2009, but last year the Huskies struck back with a 16-13 overtime triumph at home. The six wins for WVU have come by an average of 23.5 ppg, and the team is a perfect 3-0 in Morgantown thanks to a scoring margin of 27.0 ppg.
UConn quarterback Johnny McEntee threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns for the Huskies in their home meeting against Western Michigan last week, but even that effort was not enough to keep the hosts from falling into the loss column yet again. Kashif Moore captured eight passes for 112 yards and two TDs, while running back Lyle McCombs subsidized his game-high 136 yards and two touchdowns on the ground with three catches for another 52 yards and a score in the setback.
It wasn't so much that the offense for the Huskies failed to perform, it was that the pass defense for the team was completely overwhelmed and unprepared for what the Broncos were set to throw at them. UConn managed to take down the WMU signal-caller three times behind the line of scrimmage, but that in no way made up for the fact that they allowed 479 yards and five TDs through the air.
"Usually, when it's those kind of numbers, it means you weren't able to get to him enough and weren't able to harass him enough," coach Pasqualoni said of his defense. "I thought we slowed (Cardner) down a little bit in the second half, but he did a good job of getting the ball to other people as the game went on."
The passing yards allowed were by far the most given up by the Huskies thus far in 2011. In fact, only in one other game (Iowa State) was the opposition able to throw for more than 200 yards, but now the UConn secondary has been exposed and it's something that needs to be given more attention this week.
Surprisingly, the Huskies actually have very good numbers defensively when it comes to sacks and tackles for loss per game, sporting 3.0 and 8.2 per outing, respectively, to rank 10th in the country in both departments. However, take away the meeting with Vanderbilt when the Huskies logged seven sacks and 12 TFLs and those averages drop considerably.
McCombs continues to be the central focus of the offense for the Huskies, his 502 yards and four touchdowns on the ground supplying a huge chunk of the unit's accomplishments in those areas, but UConn needs McEntee to become even more of a passing threat, something that has happened in the last two games with his combined 513 yards and six TDs, but it still must be consistent.
It wasn't that long ago that West Virginia was known as one of the top running teams in the country, but there's been a major shift in Morgantown and now the ground game takes a back seat to the passing attack, one that generated 283 yards and three touchdowns last week in the blowout win over Bowling Green. However, there still are a few horses left in the barn for the Mountaineers, specifically Dustin Garrison who ran for a career high 291 yards and scored twice in the onslaught.
Altogether the WVU offense sprung to life with a hefty 643 yards, just 31 yards shy of matching the school record set against Washington & Lee close to nine decades ago. But as impressive as the offense was last weekend, coach Holgorsen wants to make sure the fans don't get too excited, too quickly.
"It's a work in progress...A lot of people get aggravated with me saying that, a lot of people want instant results, but the reality of it is it takes snaps to be good at it."
Heading into last week's action, believe it or not the Mountaineers were ranked last in the Big East and 115th in the country with just 76.5 ypg on the ground. Now, thanks to the efforts of Garrison the number is slightly more respectable at 133.2 ypg, but like the coach said you can't expect perfection right off the bat, especially from a freshman running back.
Garrison will have plenty of opportunities to prove himself in the coming years, so right now the focus really should be on quarterback Geno Smith and just how well he can direct the unit on the field. Far from being like so many of the running QBs that Mountaineers have produced in the part, Smith has a net of just six yards on the ground through five games this season. Instead, the signal-caller must put far more emphasis on his ability to find receivers down the field, something he did to the tune of a career-high 463 yards in the loss to LSU. He clearly can play the position against the elite programs, so now he has to show that he can go far beyond the pedestrian 22-of-34 for 160 yards he had in the loss to UConn last season.
Clearly the Mountaineers can dial up the offense when the situation is right and now would be a perfect time for the squad to send a message to the Huskies and the rest of the Big East that WVU is ripe for a big finish the rest of the way.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: West Virginia 42, Connecticut 21