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Q&A with The Smoking Musket

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We caught up with The Smoking Musket this week to gather as much information as possible about West Virginia prior to the Orange Bowl. Below our questions and their answers. Feel free to head over to their site and check out our responses to their questions.

STS: Clemson's defense has struggled throughout the year. But, like most teams, we've had some success when our front 4 has been able to control the line of scrimmage. How is WVU's offensive line this year? What are their strengths and where are they weak?

The line is definitely the weak spot of the WVU offense. They struggle both in run blocking and in pass protection, which has really limited playcalling during the second half of the season against some of the stronger fronts we faced like Pitt and Cincinnati. Somehow, the line played really well against the best defense we faced all year, LSU. I'm not sure if that's a result of the team being amped up to face LSU in primetime or what, but it gives me hope that they can perform well against Clemson as long as they are mentally ready. The good thing is that the offense is not entirely dependent on quality line play, as Holgorsen designs many of his plays for short and intermediate routes that get the ball out of the quarterback's hand quickly and allows receivers to make plays. In the end, this is definitely a huge matchup to watch, as it could mean the difference between WVU putting up 21 points or 42 points.

STS: I saw that you guys rate WVU's WR/TE unit as better than Clemson's. That caught my attention since Clemson has a 1st Team All-American WR and TE. I would take Clemson's unit, but I do have to admit, WVU's WR's numbers do look pretty impressive. Could you break down these guys individually?

I didn't do that ranking, so I can't say whether your TE factored into that at all. Regardless, he's dangerous and could do a lot of damage to a defense that has traditionally struggled defending the TE. I think the sentiment over our WR corps has to do with the depth. Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin would be stars in any league. Bailey is the deep threat who, although he doesn't have blazing speed or ideal size, knows how to get open and make catches. Austin is the small, speedy slot guy who is going to catch screens, run reverses, and turn short passes into long gains with his elusiveness. He has been compared in the past to former Florida WR Percy Harvin, which I think is about right. After that, you have a talented former 5-star recruit in Ivan McCartney, cousin of NFL WR Chad Ochocinco. He has boatloads of ability and was just starting to figure some things out when he got hurt at Syracuse. He's played since then, but hasn't been the same. After them, we have a jumble of guys who have contributed at varying points. Converted TE Tyler Urban is a big target who has caught several passes for first downs and touchdowns simply by posting up in the middle of the field. Wake Forest transfer Devon Brown has been inconsistent but contributed from time to time---there's nothing outstanding about him, he's just steady and if you forget about him, he can burn you. Walk-ons Willie Millhouse and Ryan Nehlen (gransdon for former WVU head coach Don Nehlen) have played some as well, and have actually caught some passes in key situations. I think the talent level between the two teams is pretty close, but the nice thing about WVU is that anyone can burn you at any time.

STS: Defensively, I saw that CB Terence Garvin is out for the bowl game. How much of an impact will this loss have on your defense?

Garvin is actually a strong safety in our 3-3-5 defense and if there is one position where WVU can afford to lose a starter, it's at safety. Not that Garvin won't be a loss---he has been a major contributor for us all year long. It's just that we have more quality depth there than anywhere else. I would expect to see either starting FS Eain Smith slide down to replace Garvin with Travis Bell replacing Smith, or Shaq Petteway or Wes Tonkery step in to fill Garvin's spot. The backups are young, but they do have talent, so it's just a matter of whether they can perform under the lights.

STS: What is WVU's general defensive philosophy? Are they aggressive? Do they sit back in a zone with a bend but don't break approach? I ask specifically because Tajh Boyd struggled late in the season against teams that dropped 7 and 8 into coverage.

The 3-3-5 is pretty unique because it gives DC Jeff Casteel so many options in how he wants to scheme against opposing offenses. It's versatile enough to walk down both safeties and put 8 in the box or drop 8 into coverage without a change in personnel or alignment. It also allows for a number of blitzes, as it's often hard for opposing quarterbacks to tell where the pressure is coming from. Against quarterbacks who haven't seen it before, it's usually pretty effective in forcing interceptions and incompletions. I would expect to see Casteel stick with his traditional game plan of playing base early, making Boyd complete a number of short passes to move the chains and trying to prevent Sammy Watkins from blowing the top off the defense with a big play. Then, as the game wears on or as Clemson gets into the red zone, Casteel will probably get more aggressive in terms of calling blitzes and bringing pressure from different angles. The line struggled to get to the quarterback early in the year, but started to come around later on as Julian Miller finally got healthy. Miller and DE Bruce Irvin are both outstanding pass rushers, and if they are playing well, they can make life really difficult for opposing quarterbacks.

STS: How have WVU's special teams performed this year?

Hah. Your guess is as good as mine on what we're going to see from them. Tavon Austin is a playmaker, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns this year. But as a punt returner, while dangerous, he sometimes struggles to simply catch the ball, which limits his effectiveness. Kicking and punting have been adventures as well, with K Tyler Bitancurt alternating game winning field goals and getting kicks blocked and P's Corey Smith and Greg Pugnetti alternating booming 50+ yarders and shanking balls off the side of their foot. Along with WVU's offensive line play, this is another key for me. If the Mountaineers can avoid giving up a huge play on special teams (such as a return TD by Watkins, a shanked punt, or some other unforseen debacle), that will go a long way in keeping momentum from swinging toward Clemson.

STS: Normally I'd ask what your prediction is for this game, but I think I already have an idea how that prediction might go. So instead I'll change it up. Has WVU faced an offense like Clemson's this year -- specifically in terms of a hurry up no huddle spread attack? How did it turn out?

We defintiely have not faced an offense as potent as Clemson's, but we have faced a few teams who I feel like want to do the same types of things---Cincinnati, Pitt, and USF. WVU had success against all three of those teams, holding their offenses to 21 points or fewer (USF scored a defensive TD). One good thing about the 3-3-5 is its ability to defend the spread because it gets more fast players on the field and covers horizontally very well. Where the 3-3-5 struggles is against larger fronts that pound a bigger back up the middle, then hit tight ends off play action. If you look at LSU and Syracuse, that's exactly how those teams were able to put up so many points against us. Well, that and the fact that WVU didn't take care of the ball. The other team I should probably mention is Louisville, whose offense was not good but managed to put up 38 points thanks to short fields off shanked punts and turnovers, a blocked FG return for a TD, and a keen ability to take care of the football. If Clemson holds onto the ball or WVU gives them easy chances by making mistakes, the Mountaineers are going to have a tough time outscoring the Tigers. For the record, my blue-and-gold-glasses prediction is WVU 38 - Clemson 28, but the EA Sports simulator said Clemson 38 - WVU 35, which wouldn't surprise me one bit.