It's easy to point two the same two areas we have highlighted time and again in line play and the ability to run and stop the run. But those are the obvious keys in this one. Baylor has had issues throwing the ball since the season-ending injury to veteran quarterback Seth Russell. True freshman Zach Smith, forced into action three games ago, is actually completing a higher percentage of passes than was Russell. But that's because the Bears have simplified the offense, trying to find easy reads for the quarterback, who has struggled when having to run through a series of progressions.
Smith has talent, and one can see glimpses of the potential, but he has often forced throws, and the timing remains off between him and BU's wideouts. The Bears are actually only completing 55 percent of their passes on the season, and Smith's ability to decipher West Virginia's odd stack look figures to be a major test. Look for coordinator Tony Gibson to dial up pressure, and force the young signal caller to make quick decisions. This area seems a clear advantage for the Mountaineers, which brings us to our primary issue.
For all the faults with Baylor's offense, whose numbers are down across the board, the Bears are still putting up more than 36 points and 530 yards per game. As the schedule as strengthened - Baylor went with its usual horrendously weak nonconference slate, then played Iowa State and Kansas in two of the first three league games - those numbers have dropped, however, to where BU has managed more than 24 points just once in its last four games. But Baylor can still run the football, as evidence by its Big 12-best 255 yards per game. It gets those in much the same way as West Virginia, spreading the field and fining vertical seams off of zone and man blocking. Backs Terence Williams and Shock Linwood are burners with big play ability, and both average more than five yards per carry.
Besides the obvious of at least stalemating the line of scrimmage, the Mountaineers must fit up correctly. The seams, already aided by the spread looks, can be quickly exploited by the speed of burst of Williams and Linwood. WVU managed to trip up D'Onta Foreman in the open field on what looked to be his only major run, and ran down some Iowa State receivers and backs from behind. That won't happen this game. Give a step or two to Linwood and Williams, and they are gone. It's why the fit up and proper gap alignment are critical. Gibson's defense must read its keys correctly and then attack the correct assignments to try and bottle the run as much as one can.
This game will stretch the 3-3-5 as much as any this season, including Oklahoma. Baylor, which will seemingly lead the conference in rushing for the fourth time in five years, has lost two of the three games in which they have been held below 200 yards. West Virginia will need to hover around that mark, and eliminate the explosive plays that have become the Bears' trademark during its recent runs. That written, this match-up is far easier than it has been in past years because the offense lacks the dynamic play making ability of a veteran quarterback. Smith is a solid pro-style quarterback at 6-4, 235 pounds. But he doesn't have the running ability of Russell, and he doesn't sling it around with the crisp efficiency of Bryce Petty.
The Grandview (Texas) High grad came in to the program in January, but still needs another full offseason to begin elevating his play to where he can win top 25 match-ups. Remember, unlike Texas' true frosh Shane Buechele, who was groomed for the starting spot in the preseason, Smith took snaps mainly with the second team, and never had as many reps as Russell. He's showing that lack of time thus far, and even with the likes of K.D. Cannon and Ishmael Zamora, hasn't been able to get Baylor's high-octane offense to perform quite how it was earlier in the year. Fit up properly, get off blocks and tackle effectively, an West Virginia will slow the run, which in turn puts BU behind the sticks, which forces Smith to throw. It's a domino effect, and when it snowballs, it's impressive to watch.
One other prime area to touch upon has to be the question of just how much gumption Baylor has for this game. After a 6-0 start, the Bears have lost five straight and face the prospect of finishing below .500 after the bowl for the first time in seven years. Does the team enter determined to try and salvage a late-season win and gain a dose of momentum going into the postseason, or does it fold at the first sign of adversity? One would think that a couple quick WVU scores would wilt any semblance of desire for Baylor, and lead to the fourth 20-point loss to end the regular season.
Acting head coach Jim Grobe is on his way out, all the assistants are likely to be released, and with a loss here, it's fair to question if the Bears would even accept a bowl invitation. it might be better to pack it in and get to the offseason, install the new coaching staff and begin to build a program decimated by transfers and a lack of depth within the latest of recruiting classes. As the Blue & Gold News print version so correctly surmised it, Baylor is "just anxious to end this nightmare. The Bears still have talent, but they no longer appear to have desire."
West Virginia, conversely, can secure just the ninth 10-plus win season in school history wit a victory, and continue to home series dominance against the Bears. The Mountaineers have nearly every intangible going their way in this one, and as long as they can manage the emotions of Senior Day, and continue to play intelligent football sans a series of mistakes, they should emerge with a 10th win in a dozen games this season, along with their first seven-win Big 12 campaign. That would also both continue the momentum into what expects to be a Russell Athletic Bowl bid, and move WVU to 15-3 over its last 18 games played.