Q&A: West Virginia writer Mike Casazza speaks with The Maneater

Casazza previews Missouri’s opener in Morgantown with The Maneater reporter Nick Kelly.

Missouri’s 2016-2017 football season kicks off on Saturday at 11 a.m. when the Tigers head to Morgantown, West Virginia to face the Mountaineers in Barry Odom’s first game as Mizzou head coach.

Mike Casazza, who has covered West Virginia for the Charleston Gazette-Mail since 2002, spoke with The Maneater’s Nick Kelly about what to expect on Saturday.

The Maneater: What is West Virginia’s biggest strength?

Mike Casazza: Probably the fact that there isn’t a simple answer for that on offense, if that makes any sense. They’ve kinda been one-dimensional. When they had Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, they were obviously going to throw the ball. The year they had Charles Sims, who is in the NFL now with the Buccaneers, they ran the ball. They weren’t very good at anything that year, though. When they struggled with their passing game when one year they went through three quarterbacks; they couldn’t really pass. Then last year they ran the ball as well as anybody in the Big 12. But this year, they have a third-year quarterback, receivers who either played or started all of last year. They have some really good running backs, plus what’s probably going to be certainly one of the top offensive lines in the Big 12 and in the conversation for a top-shelf offensive line in the country. Not the best, but certainly some of the players, especially their guards and center, are going to be really good nationally. There’s not just one thing. Their strength is they can be balanced this year. If you are going to load up against their reputation as a running team, they can probably pass it around you or pass it over you. If they start doing damage with the pass or you pay a lot of attention to the pass, they will run the ball pretty well.

ME: What is West Virginia’s biggest weakness?

MC: Just the brand-new defense. The defensive line has three good starters, but they’ve had some injuries, so they are going to use a lot of true freshmen. Their linebackers, they lost all three starters, and they will be playing the first game without one player who probably would have started. He is suspended from the game--Xavier Preston. Now, with the injury to Dravon Askew-Henry who is their best defensive player, they are playing five brand-new starters in the defensive backfield. That’s nine defensive starters that are new. Basically, defensive ends are their (returning) starters, but everyone who is between and behind their defensive ends is a brand-new starter. Experience and being able to call back to previous games or situations, that stuff is just not there. Maybe it will be in the sixth or seventh game or maybe even the sixth or seventh quarter of the year, but for the first game, that is a whole lot of firsts.

ME: Who are three players to watch on West Virginia?

MC: Shelton Gibson would be one. He is their big-play receiver. He is as fast as anybody on any field. I don’t think Missouri lines up one corner on each side the entire time, which means he will be on the quarterback’s left. He is going to go deep a lot. I think he averaged 24 yards per catch last year, which was No. 2 in the country and No. 1 in the Big 12.

[Running back] Justin Crawford is the reigning national junior college player of the year, and he has been the talk of the preseason here. He is a lot like some players they’ve had in the past in different capacities. He’s not just like one player. He’s got a little bit of this, a little bit of that and I think that will help him out a lot.

Defensively, there aren’t a lot of names there. But their middle linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton--I mean this in the nicest way possible--he is frightening. He is a big guy who has scary faces when he lines up across from you. He’s got big eyes, he scowls -- he looks like what a middle linebacker should look like when he lines up across from your center. He is the key to what they do defensively because so much of what they do is based on the defensive line getting the linebackers and safeties into the backfield and getting them free to make plays. But he does a lot to move those guards and two ends. He is one of those guys who hasn’t started too much -- he has one start in his career -- but in his one start last year, he was the defensive player of the week for the team. He just hasn’t been able to get on the field.

ME: Who on Missouri’s offense or defense poses the biggest threat to West Virginia?

MC: [Cornerback] Aarion Penton is going to be really interesting because if he plays that side of the field the whole game, he is going to see Gibson a lot. He is going to have to play well, I think, because West Virginia has good receivers, and they are going to do stuff where they will run to that side of the field, they’ll throw a screen to that side of the field, they’ll use their inside to that side of the field and you’ll have to put your best corner in that spot. He’s obviously that, but he is going to have to make plays -- not to say he won’t -- but I think he is going to be the guy who is involved probably.

Offensively, I am curious what they do with Marvin Zanders. They are probably going to name [Drew] Lock the starter, but from what I have read, they really like [Zanders]. Is he a change-of-pace guy? Is he a guy who comes in on running situations? Does he play the goal-line? It looks like he is a pretty capable player, so he would definitely be one.

Let me think outside of the box for the third one. Probably [Chris] Black, the receiver from Alabama. I think because West Virginia has so many moving parts in the secondary, like an all-new secondary. You’re looking at corners who are probably going to rotate and not play very much, and if he gets hot, who’s to say he doesn’t cause a lot of trouble back there. I am interested to see how he plays and how he does. I am also interested to see how West Virginia’s secondary does. I am just curious to see how he is involved and how the defense reacts.

ME: What is your prediction for this game?

MC: West Virginia’s offense is definitely better than Missouri’s offense. That is probably going to be what it comes down to. I would say the gap between West Virginia’s offense and Missouri’s offense is larger than the gap that Missouri’s defense has over West Virginia’s defense. Missouri’s defense is pretty good, but I think West Virginia is going to be able to protect the passer and be more balanced. I could see them scoring a lot of points this game. Or at least having the chance to score a lot of points. They may kick field goals at the end of drives instead of touchdowns, but they are going to move the ball.

There is just so much you don’t know about Missouri yet. A new offense, some of the defense I am guessing is going to be the same and it looks like it had a good defense last year that will have, what five of the top six tacklers back? It’s a pretty good base.

I could see it being 37-24 or 37-27 or something along those lines. It is probably one of those things where West Virginia feels comfortable, slows it down, runs it and tries to take control of the game, rather than try to blow somebody out.

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