Western Carolina enters the 2011 season in hopes of improving upon its 2-9 record from last year. With 14 returning starters, including nine of offense, the Catamounts have a good chance of winning more than two games this season. The Catamounts will open up against an ACC foe for the second straight season after losing to NC State 48-3 last year. The Catamounts will have to do at least three things if they want to start the season in the win column.
First, Western Carolina will have to run the ball efficiently in order to knock off the Jackets. The Catamounts return their leading rusher from a year ago in Michael Johnson, who ran for 677 yards on 151 carries last season. Western Carolina also has the luxury of returning its second leading rusher in Nate Harris who averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season. Both Johnson and Harris should benefit from another year in Western Carolina’s pistol offense, but Western Carolina will have to do better than its 107 rushing yards per game last season.
The Catamounts will also have to get better production from quarterback Zac Brindside if they are to succeed in this game. Brindside threw for 1405 yards last season after splitting playing time, but managed to complete over 55 percent of his passes. However, Brindside threw nine interceptions on the year compared to just seven touchdowns. Brindside performed well in Western Carolina’s opener last season versus NC State, completing 10 of 18 passes for a touchdown and zero interceptions. The Catamounts will need a game like that in the season opener, instead of the four other games where quarterbacks threw at least three interceptions.
Finally, the Catamounts will have to shore up its front seven for the game against a Tech offense that led the ACC in rushing last season. Western Carolina allowed opponents to rush for over 200 yards per game last season. This might be a tough task for the defense as only four starters return to the group and the top two tacklers from a year ago have graduated. One bright spot for the Catamount defense is the return of cornerback Torez Jones who had seven interceptions and was fourth on the team in tackles last season.
Head Coach Paul Johnson leads the Jackets into their first game of the 2011 season against his alma mater, Western Carolina. Johnson is 5-0 against the Catamounts in his career. Combine that record with the fact that Tech is 4-0 in its last four season openers, and things start to look favorable for the Jackets in this non-conference game. However, Western Carolina is no pushover and Tech will need to accomplish three things in order secure its first victory of the season.
First and foremost, the Jackets will have to do a better job of securing the football than they did last season. Tech fumbled 37 times last season, and only recovered 17 of them. Most of Tech’s fumbles came in the opponent’s territory, which reduced chances for the offense to score points. Tech quarterbacks also threw seven interceptions in only 166 attempts. The fumbles and interceptions translated to a minus-six turnover spread last season, the lowest for the Jackets since 2004’s -13.
The second key for a Tech win will be the effectiveness of the passing game. Tech ranked No. 119 out of 120 teams in passing last season. The Jackets do not need to throw 40 times a game due to their option attack, but better passing efficiency will help open things up for Tech running backs. Starting redshirt junior quarterback Tevin Washington looks a little bit better at passing than his predecessor, but Washington could miss Tech’s two top receivers from a year ago due to injuries.
Lastly, Tech will have to get production from its inexperienced secondary in order to make easy work of the Catamounts. Tech only returns one starter at cornerback, senior Rashaad Reid who only played nickel back last season. Tech will rely on two first year starters, sophomore Isaiah Johnson and sophomore Louis Young, to fill the other two corner spots. Young has especially looked good in practice, but he and Ayers will join sophomore free safety Isaiah Johnson to form one of the youngest secondaries in the nation.
Prediction: Tech 41, WCU 17