The theme: It's more about West Virginia than Missouri. If the Mountaineers take care of the Mountaineers, all else will handle itself. It's a seemingly simple ideal that's difficult to adhere to at times. There's so much focus on the scout, the individual, unit and side of the ball prep for each foe, that it's easy for the most basic train of thought to derail. Do what you do, and execute fundamentals and assignments. All else comes next.
If there's one West Virginia coach who's hand has been in the game longest, it's offensive coordinator Joe Wickline. The Florida native has 34 years of collegiate coaching experience in addition to his playing career with the Gators. He's been to 18 bowls, coached 28 all-conference players, 10 All-Americans and 18 pros. He understands that even the biggest of games, be they season openers or the likes of the Cotton or Fiesta Bowls, go back to one centralized point, and it's a thesis he inadvertently hammered home in each of his responses above.
When asked about Missouri's defense, one that held foes to just 16.2 points per game and finished ranked second nationally in tackles for loss, Wickline gave the according praise, then came back around to the real answer.
"I don’t see a whole lot of difference between their one’s and their two’s, and then some of their three’s," he said. "They are all talented football players. They have shown that statistically, they have proven they are good players, and they have a lot of depth. We respect the kind of players that they are. We are worried more about West Virginia right now. Taking care of what we do, how we do it and being the best that we can be."
When asked about scouting the pass rush of the Tigers, who have won the SEC East two of the last four seasons:
"The bottom line is, we play who we play, and we are going to look at what they got and how they do it and try to figure out how are they going to line up and who are they going to line up with," Wickline said. "They are a good defensive football team, solid. Again, we are going to try to be the best West Virginia that we can be; If we do that we will be in good shape."
A third time around, the inquiry this time being what impresses him most about Mizzou, and their ability to pressure by rushing just four while also containing the pass last year:
"There is a total respect in terms of that they are not one-sided, and they are very balanced," Wickline said. "In other words, they are not a one trick pony. They are going to stop the run, they are going to stop the pass and they are ready for all of the junk around it. They are real sound so I think it’s a combination of things. It goes back to the fact that we need to worry more about West Virginia and how we apply it to what we are seeing than we do about them."
The message can't be any clearer. West Virginia doesn't care about the returning starters on Missouri's defense, or the lack of returning starters on its offense. It cares not about the paltry 13.6 points the Tigers averaged last season, or the eyebrow-raising 16.2 points per game allowed. What gets its attention is a long look in the mirror, the reflection of self-reflection. Has it prepared well, maximized its opportunities, and thus set itself up to do the same in the game? If that's been accomplished - and if it hasn't it's too late now - then it's simply time to go out and execute the game plan and play what has become a convoluted ideal.
Let's play West Virginia football.
It was once a blue collar, punch-the-mouth defense and workmanlike offense. It's gotten back to that a bit, but now the words are more akin to going out and being able to do whatever is needed. Set back and WVU runs. Stack the box and the Mountaineers throw over the top - and hopefully intermediately as well. There's no passivity on the other side either, coordinator Tony Gibson's main mantra being that "I ain't gonna sit back and let them dictate." #DAWGS.
That's the goal in this one. Showcase Mountaineer football. The breakdowns have all been done. We've examined the match-ups between the offensive an defensive fronts - almost unquestioningly the key to much of the rest. How does Yodny Cajuste handle UM end Charles Harris? Can the Mountaineer line handle the shuffling, and how much has the pass protection and tackle movement helped the pocket? What's the true progression like between Skyler Howard and a set of gifted receivers?
Has Rushel Shell really turned a corner, and can he maintain the personal motivation to "run with purpose," as position coach Ja'Juan Seider says? Are the freshman and JuCo backs as advertised? Can the Mountaineers really deal with injuries to Dravon Askew-Henry, Brendan Ferns, Jaleel Fields and Xavier Pegues, along with the suspension of Adam Pankey this game and All-Big 12 kicker Josh Lambert for three games? The uncertainties are many, as are the queries. But there's really only one surefire answer that works regardless.
"You better worry about yourself and your frame of mind and what you have going on," head coach Dana Holgorsen said.