The Chalkboard: Storylines, Match-ups and More For the West Virginia - BYU Game

How best to defend BYU quarterback Taysom Hill? What's the importance of rhythm, past its overuse as a buzzword? And how does the WVU-Maryland football barometer fit in? This, plus Sherlock Holmes, in this week's edition of The Chalkboard.

The idea of “rhythm” for an offense has become a buzzword in football circles, but as with every cliché there is a kernel of real truth and meaning at the center. For West Virginia and Dana Holgorsen, it's the idea of stringing first downs together to sustain drives and wear out opposing defenses. That desire meets an obstacle in the form of BYU's defense, which is very good at generating tackles for loss – a key element in getting offenses out of the metronomic pace of first-and-ten, second-and six, third-and-one, first down. The Cougars have been good at disrupting that sort of beat, having averaged 7.5 tackles for loss per game in 2015, and totaling 22 in three games so far this year. They've been quite consistent as well – in 15 of their last 16 games they've dropped ballcarriers behind the line at least six times.

That yields a key area to watch in Saturday's game – first downs and rhythm vs. those tackles for loss. How many times do the Cougars put WVU “behind the chains” or “off schedule”? When they do, does that turn into a punt? Or does WVU rack up its desired first down total (30 or higher is the goal) and keep things clicking?

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There weren't many depth chart discussions over the open week, but one playing rotation to keep an eye on is Sean Walters and David Long at the will linebacker position. Walters has gotten both starts to date, but Long has logged a lot of playing time. Whether that's an indication of progression on Long's part, a desire to get both players on the field, or a rotation due to strengths are all possibilities, so that's an interesting usage case to track during the game.

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In many years, the West Virginia – Maryland game has served as a barometer for the Mountaineers' football fortunes in a particular season. Defeat the Terps, and a winning record and bowl trip usually result. Lose it, and it's often been the precursor to the 'Wait 'til next year' cry.

With the Terps off the schedule this year, we'll have to resort to a game in the state of Maryland to serve as a substitute – but the pattern figures to hold. Win this one, and the Mountaineers are halfway to bowl eligibility. Lose it, and getting to six wins will be much tougher. Of course, getting to a bowl is the low end of the success bar in today's era, so that has to be taken into consideration as well when looking back at the past. The overall, though, is still in play. WVU needs to win this game to have a good, or great, 2016.

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Our “best win” look takes a hit this week, as this is the first West Virginia – Brigham Young meeting on the football field. There has, however, been a previous meeting between the two camps, even though we're stretching the point a bit – or a lot.

In The Sign of Four (an original Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) a mountain man runs afoul of the leadership of the Mormons, with dire results for each. In the end, there's redemption for the erstwhile Mountaineer, but at a high price for both sides. Whether that's a good precursor to this game is entirely up to you.

(Disclaimer: While I am definitely a Holmesian, I'm not casting aspersions on the church or school with this item. It's just a story. Also, if you haven't read the 56 short stories and four novellas that make up the Holmes canon, put it on your list.)

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After WVU unveiled its new, imperceptibly crowned playing surface, the thought was that discussions about playing fields might be a thing of the past. The Mountaineer Field carpet has a perfect amount of slope (one degree) to induce water drainage but not unduly influence the trajectory of passes, and has been met with high praise from players and administrators alike. This week, though, WVU heads out from its home base to an NFL stadium that didn't exactly come up to the standards one might expect of the top tier of football four years ago.

In 2012, the Mountaineers made the trip over to FedEx Field to play James Madison, and the conditions were less than ideal. The field was soft and muddy, with a number of torn spots. There hadn't been, if memory serves, an over-abundance of rain in the area in the days leading up to the game. Hopefully things are better this time around.

This game will be one of just two the Mountaineers play on natural grass in the regular season. The other comes on the Nov. 26 trip to Iowa State.

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BYU’s offensive problems, coupled with West Virginia’s penchant for yielding rushing yardage, brings up an interesting dilemma for this week. Should the Mountaineers pressure Cougar quarterback Taysom Hill and try to keep him uncomfortable, so as to keep a lid on the passing game? Or should they stay in a less aggressive mode, cover gaps and not let him get out on the run? Can West Virginia's secondary provide the extra time in coverage to make that work?

Hill hasn’t matched his numbers from previous years in 2016, and as a result BYU has fought to maintain drives and score points. He’s under the 60% completion mark, and has connected on just two passes of more than 20 yards. That matches up against a WVU back eight that has been shaky in coverage. On the flip side, he has just 117 rushing yards in three games, but he has broken out for a 39-yarder and has scored two TDs. In his career, he has gained at least 60 yards in 18 of his 24 starts – a serious number.

Faced with this quandary, WVU probably opts for the former. That’s defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s MO – get the QB off the spot and disrupt the passing game. Yardage can be yielded, but it should be noted that even though WVU has given up 182.5 yards per game on the ground, opponents haven’t been able to turn those into points. For all the talk of a poor defense – and granted, some of the numbers are ugly – the Mountaineers are still giving up just 16 points per game. Do that again, and they come home from Landover with a win.

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Quick Notes:

  • Over the last 14 years, WVU and BYU have each won 114 games. The winner of this game will break that tie and move into sole possession of 16th place nationally.
  • BYU has more wins (21) over Power Five conference members over the last 14 years than any other non-P5 school except one. The one? Navy, with 22.
  • BYU has six pairs of brothers on the playing roster, while WVU has five. The Mountaineers get up to six when adding coaches to the equation, as running backs assistant Ja'Juan Seider pairs up with offensive lineman Ja'HShaun Seider.

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