The Mountaineers' offensive line opens a hole for running back Steve Slaton.
Click photo for larger image.
Record: 7-0 overall, 2-0 in Big East Conference.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Louisville, Ky.
Rank: No. 6.
Last week: Defeated Syracuse, 28-13.
Coach: Bobby Petrino, 36-8 in his fourth season.
Points for: 271.
Points against: 88.
Series: WVU leads, 6-1.
Comment: In the previous three meetings, the winning margin has been two points. ... The Mountaineers won last year, 46-44, in triple overtime. West Virginia also won in '93, 36-34. ... The Cardinals' only victory in the series was '90, 9-7. ... Louisville AD Tom Jurich said, "We could sell out three or four stadiums. You don't get many games between unbeaten Top-10 teams at this stage of the season." ... Louisville coach Bobby Petrino is looking to stay undefeated and move up in the polls.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Rick Trickett isn't bashful about it. He comes clean.
He stole those offensive-line schemes.
Swiped them whole cloth from the Denver Broncos and the line coach considered the Godfather of zone blocking, Alex Gibbs, a gent almost so horse-head-in-bed clandestine about such family secrets that he refuses to let fellow assistants film his team's practice drills.
"Some people say they copied a little from here, a little from there," West Virginia's respected line coach and assistant head coach was saying the other day over dinner.
"I just did every damn thing he did there."
Still does, now that Gibbs toils as a consultant with the Atlanta Falcons. Trickett continues to occasionally call Gibbs at the NFL team's Flowery Branch, Ga., headquarters. In fact, one day last season he so desperately needed the Godfather that he called three times, upon which Gibbs finally answered barking, "What the hell do you want now?" These Southern-fried offensive line coaches, they're so alike.
Funny thing, too. After the Sugar Bowl last January in Atlanta, the Falcons asked West Virginia to send them some offensive tapes to inspect. Nothing is patented and proprietary in football.
That's one reason why Michigan and Rutgers are moving up the polls and across collegiate pitches with alacrity -- they likewise have adopted zone-blocking tenets utilized by such folks as Minnesota, Iowa, Florida, Pitt to an extent and, yes, West Virginia. Then again, it isn't for nothing that these fourth-ranked Mountaineers are 7-0 overall and 2-0 in the Big East entering this week's Game of the Century at sixth-ranked Louisville. They lead major-college football in one crucial statistic: rushing offense, 319 yards per game.
"That's all we do," Trickett said. "Zone block, zone block, zone block." It must work, work, work.
First, let's explain the procedure.
There is man blocking, a method simple enough for any Cro-Magnon to comprehend: See man, get man.
Then there is zone blocking, and it isn't that simple.
"For me, it wasn't necessarily the easiest thing to grasp," offered redshirt freshman guard Greg Isdaner, a fellow recruited by the Ivies and such. He's a year and a half into the offense, and "I'm still learning and adjusting to it. You can't be dumb and play for coach Trickett. Or he will rip you to shreds."
"It's pretty complicated," added sophomore Ryan Stanchek, who started at guard last season and moved to left tackle in the 2006 opener. "You have to read the defensive technique, the defensive technique where they're at ... [get] your steps right and hat placement ..." By that, he meant placing one's facemask properly toward a defender, and not the part where Trickett whacks his guys' helmets with his hat. Zone blocking is so precise, the coach wants his linemen's pads and eyes a certain way while he is on the go.
The key to zone blocking is elementary: The line works in unison, most often laterally like some sort of line-dance troupe of 280-pounders. Call them ... the Trickettes? (Maybe this is where senior guard Jeremy Sheffey's ballet lessons as a kid pay off.) This ensemble attempts to wash the defensive front toward one sideline. Each linemen reaches a spot or zone where he stands up a defender, normally blocking him around the armpits, or runs him into fellow blocked defenders to produce momentary gridlock; then he moves onto a next defender rather than stay with his "man." This creates gaps through which a running back, or a running quarterback, can squirt and then cut back against the flow.
This also creates some uneasiness with opposing defenses, particularly -- as with the Broncos -- when the blockers aim for the knees and cut block. Playboy All-America senior center Dan Mozes, for one, prefers the cheap pancake block, where, while moving laterally, a defender trips and falls over his own feet. Goes down easy.
It is, to be sure, an art form to defend. Louisville coach Bob Petrino talked about the "line game" Thursday and keeping defenders off the shoulders of offensive linemen so "you don't give them big gaps to run through." Easier said than done: 19 of West Virginia's 25 plays of 25-plus yards thus far have come on runs. Ten scored.
"When the running back makes a good read," Stanchek said, "it makes us look good."
"He helps," Trickett added with a grin and a left-hand point toward the fellow dining next to him the other night in the Puskar Center, Steve Slaton. A sophomore tailback, Slaton has rushed for 2,055 yards and 26 touchdowns in his 14 starts. A back's work on each zone play is a shade easier than the linemen's task: He has two reads, basically Here or There. As Sheffey put it, "Our whole offense is an option. They'll tell us [linemen] 'zone right,' and next thing you know it's a pass to the left."
Before each snap, hunkered along the line, Mozes -- who spent his first 21/4 seasons at guard -- makes a one-word blocking call for himself and both guards, Sheffey and Isdaner, based on the defensive front alignment. Tackles Stanchek and Jake Figner, a sophomore, decipher their assignment from there. Most times, it refers either to a man in their zone or a gap they must protect. Sometimes, they may have to allow a defender to pass by right in front of their faces (for a teammate to block) or run himself out of the play.
"That was the hardest thing for me," Isdaner said. "I can let [say, a speedier linebacker] go and look for the next guy coming around."
This split-decision nature of the job clarifies why Trickett looks for athletic, smart, tough linemen, though Trickett said, "I'll take tough first." He recruits players with nimble feet and pliable craniums. And, attention Joey Porter, don't even consider this a finesse offense just because these boys are roughly 6-3, 293-pound footwork zonies contrasted with those 6-6, 315-pound, man-blocking Steelers' mashers.
The notion of zone blocking came to West Virginia with coach Rich Rodriguez five years ago. He ran something of the sort as Clemson's offensive coordinator. He brought Trickett, a fellow Mountaineer State native, from LSU in 2001 with the dictum: We will zone block. In a darkened office, Trickett earned a Ph.D. in Denver and Gibbs. He still queues up Broncos tapes for his linemen to watch.
"They're pretty good," marveled Stanchek.
So far, these Mountaineers likewise have been in, well, a zone.
"How good are they?" White asked rhetorically before rushing for his second consecutive 100-yards-plus game at Connecticut. "Four-hundred-57 yards [rushing against Syracuse]. Smart players. Athletic. They work as one. And Trickett is, in my opinion, the best offensive line coach in the nation."
Syracuse coach Greg Robinson, after his Orange endured its all-time worst defensive day against the run, singled out Trickett as a key to the Mountaineers' offense. He should know. When Denver won back-to-back Super Bowls in the late 1990s, he coordinated its defense, and Gibbs coached its offensive line.
Chuck Finder can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1724.