Texas Tech To Present WVU A Very Difficult Challenge
MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–West Virginia figures to get tested in all three play phases when it visits Texas Tech Saturday for a key Big 12 clash.
The Mountaineers head to West Texas flying high, ranked No. 12 in the country and sporting a 3-0 record. But what awaits them at Jones AT&T Stadium is likely their toughest challenge to date.
The Red Raiders started the season on a sour note, taking a 47-27 drubbing from Mississippi in the opener on Sept. 1 in a neutral site game in Houston. But Tech has been building since then, running off three straight wins – 77-0 over FCS Lamar, 63-49 over Houston and 41-17 at Oklahoma State – to up its record to 3-1 and earn the No. 25 spot in this week’s A.P. poll.
TTU gets a lot of attention for its offensive prowess, which is understandable since it is No. 1 in the FBS ranks in passing offense (435.8 yards per game) and total offense (623.5 ypg), as well as fifth in scoring offense (52.0 points per game) and 56th in rushing offense (187.8 yards per game).
All that makes for a tough matchup for a Mountaineer defense that has some pretty good numbers itself. It is tied for No. 1 in the country in scoring defense (12.3 points per game), 41st in total defense (338.0 yards per game), 44th in pass defense (193.0 ypg) and 62nd in rush defense (145.0 ypg).
But West Virginia’s first three opponents – Tennessee, Youngstown State and Kansas State – didn’t have near the same offensive firepower as the Red Raiders.
Thus the Mountaineers have their work cut out for them this Saturday afternoon in Lubbock.
“What we have to do is win up front,” explained WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. “That’s easy to say, but it’s a lot harder to do when you only have three down (defensive linemen). This week is probably not going to be a time where you see four down, just because of what they do and their personnel groupings.”
Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingbury, who is 33-34 in his six seasons leading his alma mater, always seems to produce a quality quarterback. From Case Keenum and Johnny Manziel in Kingsbury’s days as an assistant at Houston and Texas A&M respectively to Baker Mayfield, Davis Webb, Patrick Mahomes and Nic Shimonek at Tech, he has worked with a decade worth of outstanding QBs. It appears as if Kingsbury has another one on his hands now in true freshman Alan Bowman. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder from Grapevine, Texas, currently leads all FBS quarterbacks in passing yards (389.2 ypg), as he’s completed 129-of-179 passes (72.1 percent) with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions.
Getting pressure on Bowman isn’t easy, as he make quick decisions in the pocket. TTU has allowed just four sacks this season, in large part because of Bowman’s ability to get rid of the football in a hurry.
“He doesn’t hold the ball long,” said Gibson. “He gets it out quick and does a really good job of it. I think they’ve only given up four sacks on the year. So, they’re not going to let you hit their quarterback.”
In the Kingsbury era, Tech’s defense has usually been its Achilles’ heel. It looked like more of the same for TTU through the early part of the 2018 season. The shutout of Lamar not withstanding, the Red Raider defense was its bad old self in giving up 47 points and 546 yards of total offense (336 passing and 210 rushing) in the loss to Ole Miss and 49 points and 635 yards of total offense (462 passing and 173 rushing) in the shootout victory over Houston.
But Tech’s defense performed much better last Saturday in its 41-17 win at Oklahoma State. Maybe it was the return of veteran safety Jah’Shawn Johnson, who had missed the first three games because of injury, or maybe it was just a veteran unit, which starts five seniors and four juniors, finally rounding into form. Whatever the reason, TTU went into Stillwater and held the normally high-flying Cowboys to 17 points and 386 yards of total offense (258 passing and 128 rushing).
“I think they’re playing at an extremely hard level,” said WVU offensive coordinator Jake Spavital of Tech’s defense. “They’re playing with great energy. They have great enthusiasm out there. It looks like they love playing the game, and when you play with that enthusiasm and that effort, you’re going to naturally cause turnovers.
“I thought, at the beginning of the game versus Oklahoma State, they were in a tight battle, and they just kept consistently playing with great effort throughout the course of the game,” added Jake Spavital, whose older brother Zac is a linebacker coach for the Red Raiders. “It got to the point where I just thought they wanted it more than Oklahoma State. It is an aggressive defense. They play a lot of man (coverage). There’s going to be added hats in the run fit, and it’s going to be a team who makes you earn everything you do. If you come out there and you’re not accurate with the football and you’re not accurate in one-on-one battles and you’re not, at least, matching what they’re doing, it can be a long night for any offense that plays against them.”
Despite holding a four-game win streak over TTU, the Mountaineers are very leery of the Red Raiders. On the other side, Kingsbury is just as impressed by West Virginia.
Tech’s coach said it starts with WVU’s triggerman, Will Grier.
“He’s obviously very talented, great arm, very poised, great pocket presence,” Kingsbury said of West Virginia’s senior QB. “He’ll be one of the top guys taken this year (in the NFL draft) and should be. He’s a mature, kind of like an NFL player already. I was hoping he would have left last year, but he stuck around and is playing through the roof. But you can tell he’s mastered that system, knows it inside and out, has a great mentor there in Jake Spavital. So he’s one of the best in the country, no question, and playing at a really high level.”
It’s not just Grier that impresses Kingsbury. He also thinks highly of WVU receiver David Sills.
“You know, he reminds me of Mike Evans with his size and physicality,” Kingsbury said of Sills, comparing him to the current NFL star who he coached at Texas A&M in 2012. “You watch him punishing defenders down the field; that’s what Mike did when we coached him at A&M. He never takes a play off, explodes off the ball every rep, and that’s to me what separates him. He’s a big, physical presence. Having his quarterback background, I think it really helps him in his route running and those guys being on the same page. He does not take a play off; whether it’s the run game, the pass game, that guy is going full speed every single rep, and that was a quality that Mike had, and that’s why he’s one of the top guys in the NFL right now.”
Kickoff time from Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock is noon (Eastern time) on Saturday. It will be televised by ESPN2. WVU is currently listed as a 3.5-point favorite in a game that the Las Vegas guys figure to be high scoring. The over/under point total of 72 is the highest for any FBS game this weekend.