(Photo courtesy of wvmetronews.com)
Coming off a disappointing loss at Oklahoma State, West Virginia returns home to host the new look Baylor Bears this Saturday. Baylor opened their 2020 season last week with a 47-14 win over Kansas in Waco. Baylor’s offseason brought a new wave of coaches after Matt Rhule left for the NFL. Dave Aranda took over the reins in January after winning a National Title last year as LSU’s defensive coordinator. His hire brought former North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora as Offensive Coordinator and former Louisiana-Lafayette Defensive Coordinator Ron Roberts manning the same position. The coaching staff is not the only difference in a Baylor team that lost the Big 12 title game just a year ago. The Bears return only 10 starters, 8 of them on the offensive side of the ball. This will not be the same 11-3 team that challenged for a College Football Playoff spot in 2019, but it is still a solid group that comes to Morgantown just outside of the Top 25.
It was a spooky Halloween night in 2019 as the underdog Mountaineers fought down to the wire in a sloppy 17-14 triumph for Baylor. Trailing 7-0 just after halftime, George Campbell took a short pass 83 yards for a touchdown to tie it. On the next drive Baylor took 2:08 to go 75 yards and take another touchdown lead. Winston Wright Jr took the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a house call as the flurry of scoring ended with the contest locked at 14. Baylor kicker John Mayers kicked what would be the winning field goal with 10:19 left in the game. WVU would have tied the game as Casey Legg knocked in a 43 yard field goal with just over 3 minutes left however, a delay of game was called, and the following 48 yard field goal was blocked by the Bears. The overmatched Mountaineers stayed in the game with a dominating defensive line and three Baylor fumbles. The offense was the letdown, going 3-17 on third downs in the contest. For WVU to finish the job Saturday, the offense will have to be much more efficient than they were last year.
Charlie Brewer returns for his Senior season as a 4th year starter for an offense that has four starting lineman returning. Unfortunately for Brewer, this offensive line is still not very good. Darius Stills message to ESPN’s Molly McGrath last season “They’re soft up front” still showed last week against Kansas. Brewer had very little time to stand in the pocket and deliver the ball to his playmakers, while the running game was not overly impressive. Fedora does a good job masking the issues with his offensive line by playing a style of offense that dinks and dunks down the field, much different from the Baylor offenses of the 2010’s that saw big plays and big points.
Brewer did not take many downfield shots last week, throwing for 142 yards on just 23 attempts. Fedora does not play many tricks in the pass game, lining up the majority of eligible receivers to the field and creating space for them to get open. The Bears leaned on the run game to put Kansas away in the second half rushing 43 times for 203 yards for the game. Baylor likes to pull their guards and tackles a lot to help running back John Lovett get the edge. Coincidence or not, this conceals the offensive line issues by leaving first level defenders unblocked, getting skill players to the edge of defenses to make plays. All in all this Baylor offense is pretty vanilla for playing in the Big 12.
A complete renovation of the Bears defense returns only two starters. Against Kansas, the Bears showed a 4-2 look of sorts that may be considered a 3-4 depending who is the mastermind of the defense. To me it seems there is a bit of transitioning going on from the 3-3-5 Rhule ran during his tenure. Whether you call it an outside linebacker or defensive end coming down to the line of scrimmage, the fact is this player does not drop in coverage often if at all. This defense is young and fast, they will fly to the football. They will find themselves out of position at two of the three levels, the one exception being the linebackers.
Junior Rover Jalen Pitre is the best player on their defense and will be used both blitzing and in coverage. Preseason All Big 12 linebacker Terrel Bernard plugs holes in the run game with the best of them and led the team with 8 tackles, 3.5 for loss, and 2.5 sacks. This defense plays well up the middle, the holes are on the edge and in the secondary. Kansas’ top two backs averaged over five yards per carry last week and got to the boundary on a couple different occasions. In addition, freshman quarterback Jalon Daniels had open receivers that he just plain missed last week showing mishaps in the Baylor secondary. I expect this defense will improve throughout the season with Aranda now at the helm, but it is not enough time for a night and day difference this week.
Baylor Special Teams
The return game is where Baylor put the Kansas game away last week. Backup running back Trestan Ebner took the second half kickoff back for a touchdown and a free kick after a Kansas safety back to the house shortly after. John Mayers returns for his sophomore season at kicker and hit all six extra points and added a 47 yard field goal, coming off a freshman season that saw him go 16-19 with a long of 51 yards. Baylor’s punt team is the weakest special teams link, which won’t make much of a difference with how bad the WVU special teams have looked so far this year.
KEYS TO THE GAME
WVU’s outside linebackers will need to play ten times better than they did last week for the Mountaineers to pull out a win. Pulling lineman will bring a big challenge to the edge of this defense. VanDarius Cowan not being available could prove vital in this matchup as Jared Bartlett or Exree Loe will see more snaps need to step up. The WVU backside pursuit will be a big factor in keeping the Baylor running game in check. Ebner is very capable of big play potential and it seemed it did not matter who Oklahoma State put at running back for them to pop a big run in a big spot last week.
Offensive Line Improvement
This is going to be a running theme to game keys until it gets fixed. In fact, this will remain a key to the game until there is some semblance of an offensive line. There is potential to take advantage of the Baylor defensive line. They are young and they love to over pursuit. This group is not as big as the Oklahoma State defensive line but the Mountaineers will need to get movement and get to the second level to have success inside rushing. Otherwise, WVU will need to take advantage of the edge and get the ball outside quick to have any shot at 100 rush yards for Leddie Brown. An improvement will be about 120-140 team rushing yards this week. Baylor will bring pressure and the pressure they bring is good. I’m not going to call them great yet since it was against Kansas last week but Pitre and Bernard combined for 5.5 tackles for loss. Keeping this pressure from Jarret Doege is necessary.
Will Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Sam James please stand up? Ok, just wanted to make sure they were still on the team. These two have seemed almost nonexistent this season. Neither can get open, and Ford-Wheaton has had multiple drops. The success of these two getting open could open the entire offense. No there has not been a lot of time for Doege to throw, and the running game is nowhere close to what it needs to be but when given the opportunity at least catch the ball. Hitting three or four 30+ yard plays changes the entire way the opposing defense plays. This puts a different dynamic to an otherwise stymied WVU offense.
LINES & PICKS
West Virginia vs. Baylor (-3)
At first, I thought this line was favored again in WVU’s favor. After watching the Baylor game a few times, I am beginning to think this is about right. Some places it has trended down to Baylor -2.5. It was not the quick improvement we wanted to see from the WVU offense last week but at last it is SOME improvement. I believe Baylor has enough questions, inexperience, and let’s not forget their first three attempts at playing a game were cancelled. I do not like playing the spread game with a line this low. The total is not the easy play that it was last week. This total is probably about dead on and could go either way. If Baylor’s special teams make some plays I could see this going over. If not I, think this total stays just under 52. This has gone down from the 55 it opened at. If it hits 52, jump on the over.
Pick: WVU moneyline +113. WVU gets its first Big 12 win of the year Saturday against Baylor.
Let’s Go Mountaineers