MORGANTOWN -Don't be surprised if Thursday night's first-ever football clash between West Virginia (4-2) and Auburn (4-3) is a low-scoring, defensive struggle.
At the season's halfway mark, neither school's offense appears to have attained any semblance of production on a consistent basis. And, as a result, each defensive unit has had to carry the load.
Statistically, there is very little difference between the teams. The Mountaineers are averaging 22.2 points and 342.2 yards per game, while giving up 14.7 points and 320.8 yards. The Tigers are averaging 19.1 points and 292.6 yards and allowing opponents only 13.1 points and 272.7 yards.
So Auburn, which has played one more game than WVU to date, would seem to hold a slight edge on paper - thanks to a stingier stance on defense.
Making the comparison all the more favorable to the upcoming visitors to Mountaineer Field/Milan Puskar Stadium is the fact that their three defeats came by a combined margin of just nine points.
That's right, an average of a mere three points per loss.
The first setback was to then-No. 6 LSU by 26-21 at Auburn. Then, after a 14-12 win over Tennessee, the Tigers bowed at No. 19 Vanderbilt by just 14-13 and then to Arkansas at home 25-22.
They opened the season with victories over ULM 34-10, Southern Mississippi 27-13 and Mississippi State in a 3-2 struggle on the road in which neither team could drive into the end zone.
So if anyone out there is anticipating an old-fashioned shootout, perish the thought. Neither team has scored more than 27 points against an NCAA Division I-A opponent this season.
Opponents also have maintained an edge in time of possession against both WVU and Auburn. And that could be a critical factor in Thursday night's meeting. So could third-down conversions.
While this is a spanking new two-game series, put together by ESPN for national television, at least one member of Auburn's coaching staff is no stranger to West Virginia. He is Paul Rhoads, who joined the Tigers last January as defensive coordinator.
If the name doesn't ring a bell, he happened to be in that same position for Pitt last Dec. 1 when the Panthers, 27-point underdogs, upset WVU 13-9 in the 2007 regular-season finale. In the process, the Mountaineers were limited to just 12 first downs and 183 yards in total offense.
On a conference call with West Virginia media last Friday, Rhoads said simply, "We just tackled extremely well that night." One could hardly argue with that.
But there were years while he was still at Pitt when his defense couldn't handle either Patrick White or Steve Slaton. Perhaps he finally figured out how his charges could hold both almost to a standstill.
Now it should be interesting to see how his Auburn defense does against White and Noel Devine here Thursday night. Being an Alabama native, White can hardly wait.