The Bears are the top offense nationally in both points and total yardage, scoring more than 64 per game in blowouts over SMU, Lamar, Rice, Texas Tech and Kansas. The latest Art Briles incarnation is eighth in passing at 367.4 yards and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly even for their running game, second on the ground with 357.6 yards. It combines to average more than nine yards per play, and a 42-point average margin of victory.
“They look better to me,” WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “They are performing as well as you can on offense. They are extremely efficient, and haven’t missed a beat with the new quarterback coming in. They have a great receiving corps, the offensive line is the same personnel a year better and they’re averaging more yards and more points.”
Quarterback Seth Russell has completed 83 of 150 passes, and has already racked up more than 1,500 yards with 22 touchdowns and five interceptions. Briles has protected the first-year starter with an explosive running game based around All-Big 12 back Shock Linwood. The junior, a Doak Walker candidate, already ranks in the top 10 on most of Baylor’s career rushing lists, including yards, yards per game, touchdowns and career total offense per play. Linwood is 10th in the nation with 719 yards this season. Add in Terence Williams and Johnny Jefferson, both of whom already have 50-plus carries on the season with 7.1 yard averages, and Briles’ version of the Air Raid has become mainly run-based.
“You put the appropriate numbers in the box to handle that, and their quarterback is playing well and making good decisions,” Holgorsen said.
Mainly throwing it to Corey Coleman, who leads the country in receiving touchdowns with 13 and is fifth in yardage with 678. The 5-11, 190-pounder isn’t as physically imposing as Oklahoma State’s 6-4 Marcell Ateman was, but has become as big of a threat as there is within a scheme that often gets him single coverage.
“He’s playing lights out,” Holgorsen said. “He’s fun to watch. I wanted him in high school and he developed into one of the best receivers in the entire country. He’s physical, has great ball skills, plays hard, runs great routes. And you can’t focus on him, because they got eight other ones as well. This is the deepest receiving corps I have seen, and it’s a challenge to contain those guys.”
West Virginia pressured Bryce Petty to contain Baylor last season, but this is a more veteran team which will expect such tactics this year. Add in the motivation of the lone loss coming in Morgantown last season, and being outscored 41-20 after an early WVU fumble, and this has been a circled game for the Bears. For WVU, it’s the third in a gantlet of four looking more difficult each week, especially with the self-inflicted mistakes that turned a tight contest into a blowout at Oklahoma before costing the Mountaineers a win last week in the overtime defeat against OSU.
West Virginia has nine turnovers in its last eight quarters, including two for defensive scores and another three deep in its own end. Though not all his fault, quarterback Skyler Howard has racked up five interceptions and three fumbles, including both that were turned directly into touchdowns.
“We do two ball security sessions, so I can’t designate any more time for it,” Holgorsen said. Which is true. Sometimes putting too much focus on any singular aspect detracts from the point.
“It’s been a couple different guys,” he said. “We teach these guys to hang on to it. Skyler also forced a couple different balls. They have to execute better. The one bright spot we have had offensively, and there hasn’t been much, is we have been able to run the ball pretty effectively. We’re averaging 220 yards per game. Skyler does a good job in the run game, makes good decisions. Wendell (Smallwood) is our best offensive player, and he had another 100-yard game (against Oklahoma State).”
Much has been made over postgame comments about how the backs decide who plays what series, especially after the best offensive player didn’t see action in the overtime period. Smallwood said Rushel Shell wanted the series because Smallwood had the final drive in regulation. Holgorsen said in a postgame statement that “whichever guy is ready to go, we put them in there. We can’t play them both right now. They are too important, and they are getting the ball too many times. Whoever is fresh needs to get in there. They are going to be on the rotation, and it is probably going to be that way the rest of the year.”
Still, one would think the decision of who to play in key situations, barring health issues, would be made by the coaching staff, and it seems more than a curious choice not to put the most explosive threat on the field for even a portion of the eight-play series. It’s a choice that might well have defined the month of October, and part of Holgorsen’s tenure.
“Get back to work and keep playing, focus on overall picture, which is an opportunity to play this great game,” Holgorsen said when asked how the team could refocus. “We are excited to be in the Big 12. We’re going to have to line-up and play top quality teams. The preparation going to No. 2 Baylor is no different for top 20 teams like Oklahoma State and Oklahoma before. It’s what everybody signed up for, and we are excited about it. It’s a good opportunity.”
Note: Karl Joseph will have surgery on his injured right knee this week, then join the team in Waco, Tex. for the game. Holgorsen said Joseph wants to be on the sidelines, and that back-up-turned-starter Jarrod Harper “stepped in and did well. He was very tough, very aggressive in the run game. That was the biggest thing we were concerned with was losing the physical nature Karl brings to the table. Nobody can bring that to the level he did, but (Harper) made lots of plays and played lots of snaps. He started to fade toward the end because he wasn’t used to playing so many snaps.”