That lone game aberration is arguably the biggest on the schedule, coming against rival Oklahoma at the state fair in Dallas each season. Texas, 1-4 at that point with a pair of blowout losses, racked up 368 yards while holding Oklahoma to 278 and just three of 12 on third down conversions. UT’s ability to get off the field and hold OU’s rushing game to just 67 yards while protecting the ball and amassing 313 on the ground themselves keyed the win.
But the Longhorns have thus far been unable to duplicate the effort against any team outside of the bottom feeders in Kansas and Kansas State, and gave up 426 yards, 238 on the ground, in a 24-0 loss at Iowa State. That dropped UT to 0-3 in true road games, though the other two were then-No. 11 Notre Dame and then-No. 4 TCU. Texas has been abysmal, getting outscored 112-10 on the road, and largely been unable to generate much on either side of the ball.
UT’s 4-3 set struggled to match Iowa State’s front five, even with jamming the interior at times in an effort to eliminate runs between the tackles. It was especially ineffective in the red zone, allowing a pair of easy scores, one a simple carry over the right side during which the Texas front was blown three to four yards off the ball. The Longhorns also struggled in the secondary, allowing multiple open completions, including a score to boost the Cyclone lead to 17-0.
So it’s been a bit of everything for Charlie Strong’s defense, with the exception of effort and hustle. Texas plays hard. It’s main issue is it’s simply playing several true and redshirt freshman, and it lacks the veteran savvy and execution of players with three and four seasons in a collegiate program. UT started five freshmen in the opener against Notre Dame, and five others have made significant contributions across all three sides of the ball.
One area where Texas doesn’t start any newcomers, and is likely the strongest, is within the pass rush. Texas has six sacks over its last four games, and registered five sacks against Kansas State. The ‘Horns have gotten pressure early and often coming from a variety of areas, and it’s an aspect West Virginia offensive line coach Ron Crook detailed this week, noting not only how big, long and agile the front is within the pass rush, but also how Texas employs pressure from widely varying areas. And though the schemes aren’t the same, UT’s ability to collapse the pocket from the ends in to contain the quarterback, along with its pressure from the linebackers and varying safety spots, along with the outside blitz from the corner slot, has caused opposing teams pass protection fits.
This will be the biggest of offensive challenges for the Mountaineers, and might call for an even more unbalanced approach than it had last week in gashing Texas Tech for 300 yards on the ground while throwing for just 149. The Longhorns haven’t shown the ability to stop a spread rushing attack (it had some success against K-State), and this will have to be WVU’s bread and butter.
Keep an eye on how often West Virginia gets behind the chains, and how solid the pass protection is for Skyler Howard when the Mountaineers throw it. WVU needs solid first down yardage and intelligent second down play calling to stay ahead in the yardage vs down battle, and thus have far more of their playbook available. Howard and head coach Dana Holgorsen have to resist the temptation to pass it any more than is needed, and continue to test a front that has proven unable to match most of the Big 12.
The concern for West Virginia is that its line could wear down faster than Texas’ front seven. Even with five of its front seven gone from last year, the Longhorns are rolling in many players in an effort to stay fresh, an intelligent idea against a schedule featuring fast-paced offenses that can run 90 plays per game. Check out the tempo and pacing of West Virginia, and how much it wants to push itself versus the superior depth up front of UT. The Mountaineers could be without Yodny Cajuste again, and that would leave no more than six linemen likely to play in the game. So how much the grind, and the physical nature of the run-based offense WVU will run, wears on the front could be a key late.
Watch the 214-yard mark. When Texas foes reach that total on the ground, the Longhorns are 2-4. When UT holds teams below that number, it is 2-1. WVU is averaging 220 yards on the ground this season, and it’ll likely need to eclipse that mark soundly because as Texas’ pass defense has improved, West Virginia’s has gone down from averaging less than 192 yards in Big 12 play.
On defense, West Virginia matches up well, and should be able to slow a very limited Texas side. UT can run power behind the line and with quarterback Jerrod Heard, who replaced former starter Tyrone Swoopes. Add in Jonathan Gray, and the ‘Horns have the weapons to attack on the ground. But the Mountaineers have slowed the run well this season, and have the ability to limit the plays up the middle and force the run to the outside, where they have speed and skill advantages in safeties K.J. Dillon and, even now, with Jarrod Harper, who has played well in replacing Karl Joseph.
The primary issue here will be tackling. West Virginia was abysmal in the first half at Texas last season, when the Longhorns scored first and never trailed in the disappointing 33-16 loss. Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski said he could tell the Mountaineers were lacking their normal juice in the week following the last-second loss to TCU, and it showed in falling behind 24-3 at the break after getting outscored 17-0 in the second quarter. West Virginia rebounded defensively, but scored just nine more points, all in the third quarter.
WVU’s defensive abilities are even better this season, and would seem to match-up against Texas’ more traditional sets far better than the high-flying attacks of Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma. UT has averaged just 157.2 yards per game, the worst in the league, and behind either Heard or Swoopes aren’t a significant threat for big passing gains. Against the run, and within broken pass plays, QB mobility is a concern. The Mountaineers have bottled basic run games without an athletic quarterback. But the likes of Trevon Boykin, Seth Russel and even Patrick Mahomes have hurt West Virginia.
Watch the contain within the pass rush to keep Heard from leaking outside, and check to see how WVU’s line is handling the Texas front. Middle linebacker Jared Barber has been stressed at times trying to hone in on opposing signal callers, and his lack of speed when matched against very high level Big 12 scramblers has hurt. But that’s been true of almost any middle linebacker against spread teams, and Barber’s tackling ability should help in UT’s more conventional, power sets.
The best bet for West Virginia is to limit first down success, then force Texas to play behind a worse down and distance, especially those that force the pass. What the Mountaineers can’t do is exactly what got them in trouble a season ago, when they allowed drives like an 11-play, 90-yard march and another of 78 yards. The keys: Keep UT behind the sticks, tackle effectively and don’t allow the busted plays. If that happens, Texas won’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.
Special teams is another area that leans toward West Virginia, as it has bottled the majority of returners within both punt and kickoff, and has proven commodities in punter Nick O’Toole and placekicker Josh Lambert. Texas’ return men aren’t as dangerous as most of the Big 12, so the approach should be more of the same in getting solid placement, hang time and direction, and the units staying in lanes and tackling effectively.