Thursday, November 20, 2008

Q&A With Tom Heiser

We're doing a mutual Q&A with Tom Heiser from the Louisville Courier-Journal for the upcoming game between the Mountaineers and the Cardinals. Our answers to Tom's questions about the game can be found here. Be sure to head over to Tom's blog for a live chat of the game starting at 12pm. With that, let's get down to business.

1. You asked me if WVU fans still consider Louisville as big a rival as they did two years ago. Flip that coin over and give us the Louisville perspective. Is it a game still circled on the calender, or is it just another game?

Personally, I'm a big believer in the rivalry. I've been cudgeled by Cardinal and Wildcat fans who cannot believe I don't list UK as are truly implacable foe. While I enjoy playing and beating the Wildcats I think that the rival with West Virginia, as it has stood in the previous three years, was superior due to the repercussions of the outcome. For both teams a BCS bowl berth dangled in the balance. Even though the Cards and Mountaineers have fallen on hard and disappointing times, respectively, I think the series still has enough energy to qualify as a rivalry for most U of L fans.

2. The defense has shown big improvement in my eyes, giving up almost 100 less yards a game and about five less points a game. Talk a little about the guys that have stepped up and the effect of Ron English on the defensive philosophy.

Ron English has certainly earned his salary this year. He took a defensive unit rife with indiscipline and shoddy fundamentals and brought it up beyond the level of respectability. For the most part, the Cardinal defense has been the one shining star in the black hole of 2008. He's a real in-your-grille competitor, a classic tough-love coach and mentors. The most glaring improvement has been on the front line, where L.D. Scott and Adrian Grady have anchored a sturdy run defense and generated good pressure on the quarterback. The linebackers, culled mainly from the JUCO ranks, have performed well, with a few setbacks. The much-maligned secondary of 2007 has drastically improved, but has regressed of late -- surrendering ridiculously long third-down conversions and touchdown passes. Injuries to Richard Raglin and now Woodney Turenne have thinned out an already suspect cohort at the absolute worst time.

3. On the offensive side of the ball, you're way more committed to the run. Talk about the emergence of Victor Anderson.

The surprising commitment to the run is direct result of Anderson's emergence and the struggles of quarterback Hunter Cantwell. Victor solidified a running back corps that was in a state of disarray after the transfer of bruising back Anthony Allen. Bilal Powell and Brock Bolen were originally slated to be the top ball carriers, but Anderson demonstrated early on his ability to break the long run, catch the ball out of the backfield, and gain the tough yards when called on.

4. How hot is the seat Steve Kragthorpe is sitting on? Any chance he gets a pink slip at the end of the year, or is next year a make or break year for him?

Hot? More like molten. The years of success under Bobby Petrino (41-9 and an Orange Bowl victory) seem a long way off right now. The Cards have lost three straight and are staring (with a loss to your Mountaineers and a tough one on the road at resurgent Rutgers) at a 5-game losing streak to close the season and leave the Cards outside of the bowl picture for a second straight year. The message boards and talk radio are alight with searing calls for Kragthorpe's dismissal. Recruiting is suffering (just seven inked so far for 2009), and attendance is showing early signs of a drop off. AD Tom Jurich is foursquare in Kragthorpe's camp, but that hasn't diminished the discontent. Consecutive losses to Syracuse and Kentucky, the recent blow-out at Pittsburgh, and a litany of atrocious penalties and play-calling have brought the situation to a boil. No one in the media expects Kragthorpe to be fired at the end of this year ... or next year ... or the year after that. The feeling is that Jurich feels Kragthorpe is the right man to turn U of L's fortunes around given the bad hand he was dealt (off-field issues, disciplinary actions). Statements of that nature haven't sat well with Cardinal fans, who've overwhelmingly supported Jurich at every turn.

5. Like West Virginia, the quarterback situation has been stable for a long time. Who takes over when Hunter Cantwell moves on?

Matt Simms, son of former NFL star Phil Simms, looks to be the heir apparent. He was pressed into service for a few series in the debacle at Pittsburgh and delivered an average performance. Tyler Wolfe, Zach Stoudt, Bill Ashburn and a few others will battle for the job. Simms hasn't shown me that he's qualitatively superior to his competition, but such is the state of Cardinal football.

6. What does West Virginia have to do to win this game? As a follow up, there's two minutes left in a tie ballgame. Who you got, Bill Stewart or Steve Kragthorpe? Or do you just close your eyes and hope for the best?

The Pat White/Noel Devine combination provides a daunting challenge for the U of L run defense, which has had trouble with some of the league's top rushers (Donald Brown and Curtis Brinkley). Devine's speed and White's scrambling present the type of challenge that makes WVU unique. The Cards haven't faces this type of a running attack all season. I'm equally concerned about White's ability to pass out of play action. Syracuse murdered U of L's secondary on two well-designed calls, and U of L's secondary will be hurting this week with the loss of Turenne at the corner.

7. The Mountaineer offense has struggled compared to last year. From the outside looking in, what is West Virginia missing? Is it a matter of personnel or play calling?

Losing Owen Schmidt and Steve Slaton undoubtedly impacted offensive production, and I was always a fan of Darius Renaud -- he seemed to always have big games against the Cardinals. From what I've seen, the Mountaineers haven't been as explosive as they were in the previous three years. We've all come to expect several rippings of 20 and 30 yards at a time -- any play could result in a blue and gold jersey streaking into the endzone. White doesn't seem as dangerous a threat running the ball, either. Hard to say, from an outsider's perspective, whether more emphasis was put on his throwing this year.

8. Finally, each game has been a scoring fest. Do we continue lighting up the scoreboard on both sides or is this going to be the year things slow down a bit?

If there's going to be a lot of points dancing across the scoreboard, then we're looking at a blowout. Louisville's offense has been stagnate since the 30-point output against South Florida. I think WVU fans will be stunned to see a Cardinal defense that manages to contain Devine and White better than they did with Steve Slaton. (Then again, if we could only have the Mountaineer duo fumble with the frequency of Slaton.) With both teams leaning on the running game, I'd be surprised if we see the pyrotechnics of 2005 (46-44) or 2006 (44-34). A 24-17 outcome wouldn't surprise from either side. I'm hoping for the upset, but I'm not as confident as I was in 2005 or 2006.

Thanks again to Tom for joining me and best of luck the rest of the way. Kickoff is set for noon on ESPN.

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