The Red Raiders (5-4) were once atop the football landscape, winning third-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s first seven games before a late season collapse that spilled over into last season. Now, Tech seems back on pace, having dispatched five foes while dropping four games against what appears to be the conference’s finest in TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State – which have a combined 30-1 record this season. Saturday will begin to reveal which program is the best of the Big 12’s second tier.
Tech might be the favorite, with its offense averaging 47.3 points per game, good for fourth nationally, but just third in the conference behind Baylor and TCU. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes leads the nation in passing with 3,331 yards, with the Raiders ranking second in the NCAA at 413.4 pass yards per game, pat of 6046 total yards. It’s a sharp contrast to the defense, which is allowing 43.4 points per game, ninth in the Big 12 and ahead of only woeful Kansas.
“It’s important to score when you have the opportunity to score,” WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “They score so quick and score so much. You’re going to get the ball so much, so the more you score is probably a little bit more important. Obviously, we didn’t do a very good job of that at TCU. We knew TCU was going to put some points on the board, and we had to match their scores when we had an opportunity to do so. We didn’t do that. This is the same kind of game. We have to concentrate on matching scores when we have an opportunity.”
West Virginia failed to get points on either of their two red zone trips, and had multiple touchdown passes dropped. The Mountaineers were also hurt by untimely penalties on both sides, and indeed lead the Big 12 in the category with an average of 90 yards per game.
“Any time you get some penalties, you can chalk it up to passion, poor technique, being out of position and that sort of thing,” Holgorsen said. “We do the same thing each week. We look at the penalties and decide whether we think they were justified. If they are, then we correct them. If it’s technique, we work on technique. If it’s being out of control or out of position, we work on that. If it’s anything else, or anything stupid, we address that, as well. But I haven’t seen any of that. I haven’t seen any penalties with guys being malicious in any form or fashion. So it’s probably more technique than anything.”
There are typically multiple reasons for that. Technique breaks down because of fatigue and trying to overcome a talent and skill discrepancy. Those were evident in many of the blowouts, namely Baylor and TCU. But that should begin to lessen along with the overall degree of difficulty in a November stretch that includes Tech, Texas, Kansas and Iowa State. The Mountaineers finish the season at Kansas State, meaning West Virginia goes from facing teams with a combined 30-1 record, 18-1 in the league, to 14-26, 6-19 in Big 12 play.
“The one thing we have to be cautious of is thinking that way,” Holgorsen said. It doesn’t get any easier for us. Just because we’re not playing a Top 15 team doesn’t mean we won’t have our hands full this week with Texas Tech. They have great coaches and great players, and it’s going to be a challenge. The remaining four games after that are going to be a challenge. That’s what’s great about being in the Big 12.”
It’s arguable that WVU’s defense might face its most difficult receiver match-up his week. After unsuccessfully trying to slow TCU’s Josh Doctson and Baylor’s Corey Coleman, a depleted secondary must deal with Texas Tech's Jakeem Grant, who is the conference leader in all-purpose yardage and already has 70 catches for 957 yards. Grant also has 1,711 kick return yards to his credit this season.
“He’s a great player,” Holgorsen said. “We had our hands full with him last year. He’s extremely quick. When you put him in space, he’s extremely tough to get down on the ground.”
Holgorsen was also asked to handicap the Big 12 race, and the chances it gets a team into the College Football Playoff this season.
“They were four great teams,” Holgorsen said. “It’s going to be fun to watch those guys compete for the championship down the stretch. All four of them are great, and they all have a chance. There’s a lot of things that have to happen for one of those teams to be able to be in the running. I think they’re all four top 15-type teams. If those four teams beat each other up, it’s going to be tough at the end. But if one team prevails, then we’ll have a great chance to get somebody in. If one team ends up beating the other three and ends up with an undefeated record, there’s no doubt in my mind that team would be as good as anybody out there.”