'Horns Follow Script, Ride Beef To Win

There’s a certain script that’s developed for opponents, as three of West Virginia’s four losses have followed an eerily similar pattern.

Play teams with superior lines and a punishing rushing attack, and lose the game. And this isn’t all a commentary on WVU’s defense, which played exceptionally well in the second half after a poor start. Those running games, as they physically impose themselves on a defense, also limit possessions and take opportunities away from a Mountaineer offense that has looked as sporadic over the last eight quarters of play than at any time in recent memory. But there’s certainly a patter developing in the losses.

Consider: Alabama eventually wore the Mountaineers down, racking up 288 rushing yards on 49 carries while amassing 30 first downs. Oklahoma hit the 301-yard mark rushing, using freshman Samaje Perine – and the biggest offensive line in both the NCAA and NFL – to average more than six yards per carry. Texas rode Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown to 101 and 90 yards, respectively, with Gray scoring three times for an offense that tallied 227 of its 351 yards on the ground in the 33-16 win.

It’s becoming commonplace, and it’s an outcome that should be expected again when West Virginia plays a Kansas State team built much the same way. Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas all set-up the vast majority of their touchdowns with the ground game, with UT averaging more than seven yards per carry up until late in the third quarter. By the time West Virginia found an answer, Texas was sitting on a 24-3 lead and leaning on a defense that has limited foes to fewer than 23 points per game.

The gashing started immediately, Texas getting runs of 14, 5 and 12 yards in the opening 11-play, 90-yard drive for a 7-0 lead. The Longhorns then chased that with Gray’s 39-yard run for a score in the second quarter, when the junior broke a tackle in the backfield before outrunning the secondary. And then UT burned WVU with consecutive backbreakers on the next series when Brown and Gray had consecutive rushes of 25 and 40 yards to get inside the red zone. Two plays later, Gray punched in from two yards for a 21-3 lead that was essentially the beginning of the end as WVU never got closer than 26-16 afterward, that just before Texas put the game away on Gray’s third score of the game on a 15-yard run with 3:06 left.

Texas had 266 total yards at the half, all but 88 coming on the ground. Gray was averaging 17 yards per carry and had already chalked up two scores for a Texas team that, frankly, is playing at a much higher level than it was earlier in the year. Not that West Virginia’s offense helped. WVU held Texas to just 85 yards and five first downs in the second half, giving the offense a multitude of chances to score. Instead, the Mountaineers sputtered until very late in the game, when a Texas base two deep coverage began to allow for some better gains downfield via the pass.

But the running game had already worked its stuff, racking up a pair of scores and helping to limit West Virginia to just three drives in both the first and third quarters. The same should be expected when West Virginia tries to snap a two-game losing streak on Nov. 20 against Kansas State. The seventh-ranked Wildcats, another fundamentally sound, solid rushing team, will utilize the same formula: Grind the ball, limit the number of possessions and slowly chip away at a WVU defense built primarily to slow spread teams. KSU, which leads the Big 12 at 7-1, 5-0 in the conference entering tonight’s clash with No. 6 TCU, is averaging 38.3 points per game behind opportunistic passing and a running game that very much mimics that of Texas.

There’s not much fancy being done to the Mountaineers. It’s simply power football, highlighted by quality blocking, strong, steady backs and the patience and discipline to utilize such a system. WVU’s defensive line isn’t getting blown off the ball, exactly, but it’s losing the up front battle more often than they’re winning it against more physical teams. That written, one should consider that the three rushing games that truly gashed West Virginia were those filled with four and five-star recruits, both along the line and in the backfield. But that’s going to be West Virginia’s life in the Big 12 when facing Oklahoma and Texas each season, along with a program in Kansas State that does more with exceptional junior college recruiting than any other across the nation.

West Virginia went to the odd stack set because of an inability to recruit top flight defensive linemen, perhaps the rarest of college football species. But for the Mountaineers to truly reach a high level within the Big 12, perhaps the least power-based of the power conferences, WVU still must gain some better size and skill level along the defensive front – and be able to mix in more offensive consistency as well.

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