The Chalkboard: WVU – Baylor

The Chalkboard: WVU – Baylor


Gary Jennings is making a ton of tough catches. Check that – the catch in and of itself isn’t the most difficult thing, but the punishment he has been taking after the reception is. He leads the Big 12 with 48 catches (8.0 per game – fifth nationally) but is just fourth in yards per catch and has only one touchdown. That’s due to the fact that he mostly works the middle of the field, snaring short throws that attack underneath the coverage or in between the linebackers. Those catches are important in West Virginia’s offense for a number of reasons. They set up makeable second and third down situations or sometimes result in first downs on their own. They keep defenders from flowing deep and outside, where David Sills and Ka’Raun White have been operating with great efficiency.

Take, for example, Jennings’ quick inside route on third down in the fourth quarter against Texas Tech. He snatched the ball against tight coverage, then bulled his way to within a yard of the first down marker. Although he didn’t quite reach the stick, he gave West Virginia the ability to go for the fourth-down conversion, which it successfully executed, then turned into a touchdown a play later.

Watch Jennings as he operates this week against Baylor. He continues to improve at finding a spot to sit down and make a catch, and his toughness belies his slender frame. Without him, WVU’s passing game isn’t nearly as good.

Also, put him on “feather watch”. He again started the Tech game with a feather in his helmet, but it disappeared at some point in the contest. Officials, if they are observant enough, would make him remove it, but it’s more likely that an opponent will try to snatch it away.

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Baylor has settled on Zach Smith as its starting quarterback, and had he been the choice from the start of the season, the Bears probably would not be winless at the moment. While he has completed only 52.5% of his attempts, he has shown good accuracy on deep balls, and has thrown eight touchdown passes against six interceptions.

Injuries around him have hampered his effectiveness, and the Baylor offense as a whole. Speedy receiver Chris Platt and running backs JaMycal Hasty and Terence Williams have all missed multiple games with injuries. Platt is out for the year, while Hasty just returned last week after missing four games. Williams missed the first three games of the year, but is now rounding back into form after carrying for 95 yards in just ten carries against Oklahoma State.

The takeaway? Baylor is struggling, but not inept, and has enough offensive weapons to get its first win of the season.

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Although Baylor’s offensive productivity is down dramatically from a few years ago, it still has explosive potential. The Bears lead all of Division I with seven plays from scrimmage 70 or more yards, and tops all FBS schools with six passes of 70-plus yards.

That’s a concern for the West Virginia defense, which has given up six plays of 60 yards or more, and 15 that have topped the 30-yard mark.

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It seems like we keep coming back to the West Virginia defensive line, but it’s an area that has morphed from week to week. WVU has played just about every defensive lineman on its roster in some weeks, and has gone with an iron man approach in others.

Last week, it was defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s plan to use substitutions to counter Texas Tech’s pace as much as to provide rest. Six defensive linemen saw action, with all three positions being substituted for as a unit on several occasions. With Baylor playing more slowly than it has in the past, does that tactic go away? While it has been at times a frustrating year for the West Virginia native, it has been fascinating to see how he has juggled players and tactics each week. The numbers may not say it, but this may be one of the better coaching jobs of his career.

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Baylor has just ten players on its roster that hail from outside the state of Texas. WVU has 86.

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Speaking of Gibson, there’s no doubt that he wears his heart on his sleeve, especially when it comes to the matters of state pride and his defense. That springs to mind this week as memories of West Virginia’s last trip to Baylor are reviewed. The Mountaineers gave up 693 yards in a 62-38 loss, leaving Gibson as disconsolate as a millennial with a broken iPhone. Of course, there shouldn’t, and wasn’t much criticism to put on Gibson or the WVU defense – Baylor was at the height of its offensive powers and the Mountaineers were short-handed.  Sixty-two points was just the fifth-highest total that the Bears scored in a game that season, but that was no consolation to Gibson, who was as down in that post-game interview session as at any time in memory.

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The home team holds a perfect 5-0 record in the series. Baylor is returning home for the first time in nearly a month, and hopes to duplicate West Virginia’s performance in that situation. WVU topped Texas Tech last week at home – their first appearance at Mountaineer Field in four weeks. Another similarity: the return is Homecoming for Baylor, just as it was for WVU.

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Remember when WVU got criticism for being hard to reach in terms of travel? Or lacking in nearby hotel amenities? Those jumping on that wagon should take a couple of road trips to Waco or Lubbock. There aren’t any full service hotels with enough meeting areas and food services to house visiting football teams, so WVU has stayed both south of Waco and in Fort Worth on its three trips there. The former resulted in a massive traffic jam and some travel issues, and the latter, while providing a better hotel location, is still some 90 minutes from the stadium. And Lubbock? It’s like trying to get a decently priced flight to Indonesia. WVU, with options in both Washington Pa. and Clarksburg, now has a much better travel situation than either of those locales.