Three years ago, a scrambling Big 12 Conference saved itself by introducing two new members, TCU and West Virginia.
Since then, the two teams have been guarantees of thrilling games, with all three of their Big 12 match ups ending on the final play of the game. The road opponent always finished as the victor, and with both teams rested up after a bye week, another high-stakes game should be ready to go this Thursday.
The 2015 version of TCU is well-known to Frog fans at this point, given its complex situation of fighting injuries and young defensive players, but the 2015 incarnation is of West Virginia is a team that’s also just as complex in replacing key losses.
THE WEST VIRGINIA OFFENSE
Following the NFL departures of Kevin White and Mario Alford, the Mountaineers have been trying to recreate their caliber of speedy receivers. Similarly, they’ve also been seeking someone like quarterbacks past such as Pat White and Geno Smith, but the result hasn’t been perfected yet.
There’s no doubt West Virginia misses White and Alford - the two now-NFL receivers provided 76.8 percent of WVU’s receiving yards from the receiver position last season, as well as 21 of the team’s 26 receiving touchdowns.
As of this moment, redshirt sophomore Shelton Gibson has been the lead replacement for that production, giving 90 yards receiving per game with six total touchdowns. The Ohio native is fourth in the Big 12 with that receiving yardage average, and is clearly Howard’s favorite target. His receiving has helped West Virginia average 269 yards passing and 36 points a game this, good enough for sixth in the Big 12 in both categories.
Fort Worth native and Brewer High School product Skyler Howard is WVU’s passer this year, throwing for more than 1,500 yards and for 15 touchdowns. This season, he’s sixth in the Big 12 with 261 passing yards per game, but has been sacked 18 times in just six games.
The hits have hurt Howard’s accuracy, as his 59 percent passing accuracy trails Big 12 quarterbacks such as Iowa State’s Sam B. Richardson, and his six interceptions trail just Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes for most interceptions in the league.
With the passing game still trying to find its rhythm halfway through the season, the running game for the Mountaineers has been an equal question mark.
Led by junior running back Wendell Smallwood, who’s averaged 113 yards per game and 6.7 yards per rush. His efforts have given West Virginia a dominant running game, giving West Virginia rushing statistics only bested by TCU and Baylor.
However, the team has only 11 rushing touchdowns - which is worst in Big 12, next to Kansas’ eight rushing scores.
The lack of scoring has been a hamper to West Virginia, and a key reason to why they’re .500 at this point in the season. However, the defense - particularly after the loss of team captain Karl Joseph - has been a contributing factor as well.
THE WEST VIRGINIA DEFENSE
At the start of the year, West Virginia sported what looked like one of the best defenses in the Big 12. In non-conference play, the Mountaineers gave up just 23 points to its opponents, including a 45-6 revenge game against Maryland and a 44-0 blowout against Georgia Southern.
That defense wasn’t as strong against Oklahoma, giving up 44 points to the Oklahoma Sooners, and soon after, the Mountaineers lost its hardest hitter and team captain, senior safety Karl Joseph.
Despite the setbacks, WVU has put together a middle of the pack defense led by senior strong-side linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski (who leads the team with 39 tackles) and senior middle linebacker Jared Barber (who leads with seven tackles-for-loss).
The Mountaineers are giving up an average of 27 points per game and 400 yards of offense, which are once again middling statistics for the Big 12.
What’s exceptional for the Mountaineers though is their defense in critical moments. West Virginia leads the Big 12 with the lowest opposing conversion rates on third and fourth down plays (28.2 and 35.7 percent successful conversions, respectively).
However, what’s unusual (again) for West Virginia is the lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Mountaineers have combined for just 11 sacks, a category in which Texas Tech is the only Big 12 team performing worse in. That bodes well for the Frogs, who should have time to give Boykin time in the pocket and Aaron Green plenty of running room.
On paper, TCU should break away with its powerful offense, but if West Virginia can force turnovers to keep game the game close, the Mountaineers are capable of splitting the uprights when it matters.
The Mountaineers are no slouch in that department, as kicker Josh Lambert - a Lou Groza finalist in 2014 - hit a NCAA record 16 field goals of 40 or more yards last season, including a career long 55-yarder. He’s 9 for 13 in field goals so far this season and has hit all 27 of his PATs attempted.
However, if the pressure stays away from Boykin and he has room to work, expect the senior to make another Heisman statement as he leads another explosive TCU offensive performance.
PREDICTION: TCU 37, WVU 24