The Chalkboard: WVU – Texas
The Mountaineer – Longhorn match-up won’t get much publicity on the national stage, but it is a huge one for both schools. WVU will lock up the head-to-head tiebreaker over Iowa State with a win, and position itself for a better bowl bid and a top four position in the league. Texas can get bowl eligible, move into a tie with WVU (and own the head-to-head tiebreaker), and guarantee a non-losing regular season. How might each team get there? Let’s go to The Chalkboard.
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In the last two games between the two teams, Texas has rushed for 218 and 277 yards. Somehow, the Mountaineers won both contests, but if the ‘Horns top the 200-yard mark again this year, it will break the two-game WVU winning streak. Texas is averaging only 135.3 yards per game on the ground this year, but the potential return of star lineman Connor Williams plus proven tactic of pounding against West Virginia’s smallish defensive line, are all strong indicators that UT will try to establish its ground attack.
Opposing that, West Virginia’s defensive front has had its best two games of the year the last two weeks, albeit against limited offenses. Neither Iowa State nor Kansas State could hurt WVU with deep passes, allowing the Mountaineers to lean toward stopping the run game. Texas quarterback Shane Buechele has been up and down, but he has the talent, and the receivers, to make West Virginia pay for repeated run blitzes.
This match-up promises to be an interesting one. Can WVU keep UT’s running game in check at its current levels, or will the Horns break out? Will WVU have to be more cautious on the back end of the defense, perhaps allowing more gaps in the run game? Texas’ early play selection is an item to track – we’ll likely get a number of different looks and plays early as they probe West Virginia’s game plan.
It’s also a battle of patched up units. Texas offensive linemen and tight ends have missed a total of 47 games this year due to injury, and WVU fans well-know the injury litany suffered by the Mountaineer defensive front.
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Among Big 12 teams, only Kansas and Kansas State have scored more than their league average against Texas. Is there something in the water in the Sunflower State?
That oddity aside, Texas has been very good on defense since yielding 51 points in the opener against Maryland. Opponents are averaging just 18.7 points per game since that contest.
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As the down inidicator increases, WVU’s average gain per play decreases. On first down, the average pickup is 7.7 yards per snap. That drops to 6.0 on second and third, and 5.0 on fourth. There are factors that affect those totals, including short yardage situations that call for power runs which often just yield a couple of yards (hopefully), or long-yardage ones where gains are yielded in order to protect the first down marker. Still it’s interesting to note that WVU isn’t shy about throwing deep on first down, as it did against Kansas State. It only takes a couple of 75-yard connections to really boost that average.
Going a bit further, is West Virginia in a pattern in this regard? That is, has it fallen into a predictable pattern with its playcalling? The thinking here is no – WVU has mixed things up pretty well, and it has been lack of execution – penalties, drops, off-target throws and protection breakdowns – that have served to stop more drives than any head starts gained by opposing defenses. This week, though, it’s a different level of challenge. WVU must keep Texas guessing on defense, and break any tendencies that might exist.
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It may only seem like West Virginia is at a special teams disadvantage each week. Perhaps that’s because the Mountaineers have faced teams that excel in one or two areas, and thus get the nod in the head-to-head comparisons, but the Mountaineers must figure out a way to limit the huge edge Texas holds with its punt game. Based mostly on the strength of punter Michael Dickson, who boast a nation’s-best 48.6-yard-per-kick average, Texas can flip the field at any moment. UT’s net punting is also tops in the country, coming in at 44.7 yards. That’s nearly half the field that Texas gains when forced to boot the ball away.
Now, put that up against WVU, which has a net punting average of 35.2. If those numbers play out, the Longhorns benefit to the tune of an extra first down’s worth of yardage every time punts are exchanged. That’s a massive advantage, and could be bigger than the 66-yard advantage that Kansas State held in punt return yardage a week ago.
WVU has been o.k. overall on special teams this year, but each week it seems like a new issue crops up. Against the Wildcats, it was the coaching decision to punt the ball in the field of play, and failure to down two punts that bounced inside the five-yard line. There’s no doubt the Mountaineers will lose yardage in the punt exchange this week – what they must do is limit those losses with solid execution. Down the ball inside the ten when the ball is punted there, kick punts outside the numbers to limit potential returns, and don’t let Dickson’s boost sail overhead – these are all items that sound simple, but can be maddeningly difficult to perform in the heat of the action.
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Despite protestations to the contrary, evidence suggests that wet weather has had an influence on the West Virginia offense. There’s no way to prove that conclusively, but the number of drops and misfires in the passing game in the last two games with rain at least make that an item to watch. With rain again predicted for this game, an eye on WVU’s ballhandling is called for.
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Finally, there’s the challenge of Texas’ defense. WVU has faced two very good units the past two weeks in Iowa State and Kansas State, but those teams weren’t as varied as the Longhorns. Jake Spavital explains the different ways that Texas can play, and points out that they can morph between tactics effectively, which makes for more difficult game planning.
“It’s up to us to come up a game plan that is just as unique against these new defenses we are seeing through the weeks,” Spavital said.