The Iowa Barnstormers vs. the San Jose Sabercats?
Excuse us for mistaking West Virginia’s games for the Arena Football League. Or maybe Bob Huggins’ Mountaineer basketball team, which might have trouble scoring as many points as Dana Holgorsen’s WVU footballers are doing this season.
This week, however, West Virginia is best advised to start playing some defense, too. Because the Big 12 schedule is going to start getting a lot harder for the Mounties as the calendar moves into October.
This weekend, the calendar has West Virginia (4-0. No. 12 Don Best Linemakers Poll) traveling to Austin to face a revved-up Texas (4-0, tied for No. 5 in Don Best Linemakers Poll) side at Darrell Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. A quick check of the Don Best Pro Odds screen notes a midweek shift in money floating to the Longhorns, with Texas a 6½-7 point favorite at most Las Vegas sports books. The midweek total is posted at 75 after opening as high as 79 earlier in the week.
Kickoff time on Saturday has been moved to 7:00 p.m. (ET) with big FOX providing national TV coverage.
While West Virginia is drawing a lot of attention for its considerable pyrotechnics in the first few weeks, and has scored an astounding 10 touchdowns three different times in its last five games since the Orange Bowl demolition over Clemson, the road is going to start getting harder for the Mountaineers in the Big 12 race. Last week’s victim Baylor, which lost by a basketball-like 70-63 count at Morgantown, might not even be a top division side in the conference. Plenty of heavyweight sides, including Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and this week’s foe Texas still remain on the West Virginia slate.
No matter the offensive output, however, the Mountaineers are going to be asking for trouble if they can’t shore up some of the leaks in their defense. Granted, the pace and tempo of early West Virginia games has been brisk, but the Mountie stop unit ranks in triple digits nationally (106th in total defense at 474 yards per game conceded). Eventually this shortcoming figures to cost Holgorsen’s crew.
Unless, of course, WVU simply keeps outscoring everybody, and QB Gene Smith continues to set a blazing pace in his race for the Heisman Trophy, of which he is now the acknowledged frontrunner. Smith’s stats after four games, including 83.4 percent completions, 20 TD passes and no picks, are the stuff of video games. Incredibly, Smith has thrown almost as many TD passes (20) as incompletions (28) thus far, creating a new TD pass/incompletion ratio applicable only to himself.
Indeed, the Holgorsen spread offense is almost impossible to defend, more so because Geno’s receivers can also do damage after they catch the ball. Last week against Baylor, Mountie wideouts gained over 300 yards after the catch, an astounding statistic. Tavin Austin (48 receptions) and Steadman Bailey (45 catches) rank 1-2 in national pass receiving stats for a strike force scoring an astounding 53 ppg.
Texas, however, figures to offer much more of a roadblock than any foes Gene Smith & Co. have faced thus far in 2012. In fact, it can be argued that Texas has the best collection of defensive athletes that West Virginia has seen since LSU dismantled the Holgorsen spread by a 47-21 count on September 24 of last year.
Longhorn defensive coordinator Manny Diaz will also have noted that Maryland was able to somewhat slow Gene Smith two weeks ago when attacking the Mountie “O” with blitz pressure (much unlike Baylor, which was helpless as it played on its heels a week ago). To that end, it might behoove West Virginia to develop a viable infantry diversion for this game, and getting top rush threat Shawne Alston (who has missed the last two games with a thigh bruise) in a healthy state will be crucial as the Mounties begin to face an upgraded cast of opponents.
Developments at Texas have been no less noteworthy thus far in 2012, especially with head coach Mack Brown on the hot seat after two straight subpar seasons and a 13-13 record in his previous 26 games entering this campaign.
For the 'Horns to forge a turnaround this season, they had to get the QB position right after struggling with it the past two years, or since Colt McCoy graduated following the 2009 campaign.
Fortunately for Mack, soph David Ash has emerged as the answer, growing up in a hurry this season and making few mistakes. Ash has tossed only one pick compared to 10 TD passes in the first four games and ranks second nationally (behind only Geno Smith) in passing efficiency.
Ash, however, has plenty of help offensively, especially with soph RBs Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown (combining for almost 130 ypg) providing consistent production. Bergeron also scored the winning TD in the last minute a week ago at Oklahoma State, even though it looked like he might have fumbled the ball before he crossed the goal line.
The Long horns will move the ball and score. The question is if their defense, allowing a respectable 21 ppg, can slow down Gene Smith and the4 Mountaineers.
Note that the underdog role has suited West Virginia well in recent years, back to the later days of the Rich Rodriguez regime; since 2007, the Mounties are 8-2 as an underdog, including 3-1 vs. the number when receiving points with Holgorsen last season. As for Texas, it is only 5-10 vs. the line at Austin since 2010, although it is 4-4 the past two seasons after dropping six of seven vs. the spread at home two years ago.