(Photo Courtesy of wvusports.com)
West Virginia looks to make a statement this weekend in Austin after a dominating performance against Kansas State last Saturday. The Mountaineers look like they may have taken the next step in developing this program with a 37-10 victory over a top 25 team. The real test to prove they have taken the next step, is a road win in a tough conference game. This one has been served perfectly for the Mountaineers, with a road trip to play the 22nd ranked Texas Longhorns.
Texas enters this game riding high off an upset win in Stillwater last week by a score of 41-34 in OT. The score doesn’t tell the entire story though. Oklahoma State pretty much tried to lose this game more than Texas won it. Texas was outgained 530 yards to 287 and was aided by four Oklahoma State turnovers that the Longhorns turned into 20 points. Otherwise, this was a relatively quiet performance from Texas’ offense. Sam Ehlinger completed just over 50% of his passes for 169 yards while netting negative yardage in the rushing department. Texas is a good team, just not good enough to beat top 10 teams week in and week out.
The Longhorns rank 10th in the country in scoring this season at just a clip over 44 points per contest. Yardage wise, they come in at 27th. This offense has potential to be high powered but doesn’t necessarily click on all cylinders. They are aided by all the chaos the defense has been able to create with 12 turnovers. Complimentary football wins a lot of games. At times, this could be the team playing the best complimentary football in the country. Other times, they’re stuck in low gear.
Last season, Texas came to Morgantown as the 11th ranked team in the country and were punched in the mouth early. Austin Kendall found Sam James on a deep shot to the end zone on the first drive to take a quick 7-0 lead. Cameron Dicker missed a field goal on the ensuing drive, giving WVU all the momentum in the world. Then the wheels started to fall off with Kendall throwing his first of four interceptions. The Mountaineers were able to outgain Texas by a small margin and the penalty yardage the Longhorns racked up kept the game close. WVU would hang around but turnovers proved too much to overcome and Texas was able to escape with a 42-31 victory.
The theme of the matchup between these two schools are road victors. WVU holds a 4-1 all time record in Austin, while Texas holds a 3-1 all time record in Morgantown. West Virginia has yet to win on the road this season. Texas is just 2-2 at home with victories over UTEP and Baylor. Their losses have come at the hands of TCU and Oklahoma. Texas enters this contest as the favorite, however West Virginia has a great opportunity to put a strong foot forward in this “Trust The Climb” process. I wouldn’t call this a signature win, but it sure is a necessary one.
Sam Ehlinger enters his 27th…I mean 4th season as the Longhorns quarterback. A true gamer that has taken the hits as he’s rode the wave that Texas football has come to be. Ehlinger has had this program on the brink of being “back” for three straight years but hasn’t quite gotten over the hump. Ehlinger burst onto the scene as a freshman to take over the starting job and never looked back. A decent passer with escape ability, Texas will use him in the run game as well as distributing the ball in this fast paced system. No matter how it all ends, Ehlinger will leave a storied career in Austin and certainly gave this school everything he had.
The backfield has a three man rotation at Ehlinger’s disposal to hand the ball off in a zone heavy run scheme. Texas doesn’t have a huge offensive line, but it is experienced with all five starters having been in the program at least 3 years. Making up for the lack of size, they use their quickness to move defenders where their momentum is taking them and allowing the backs to make cuts off of this. It’s not the best rushing attack with Ehlinger leading the team in rushing, however it is a true three headed monster behind him. Keaontay Ingram, Roschon Johnson, and Bijan Robinson have all split carries and all have over 4.5 yards per carry. Each of them has over 180 yards rushing on the season as well with Ingram leading the group at 250 yards. Robinson, the true freshman, is the most explosive one of the bunch and is not timid to hit the hole and get downhill quick.
On the outside, Joshua Moore and Brennan Eagles lead the Longhorns receivers with Michigan transfer Tarik Black possessing the splash play potential. Ehlinger distributes the ball very well as 7 receivers have double digit catches this season. Moore leads the team with 7 TD grabs. Texas likes to use a lot of motion and crossing routes with these guys to window dress plays and get favorable matchups. It seems this throws the group out of sync at times and they can’t get open or they are bumped off route. You will see a lot of different guys lining up at receiver due to the fast paced nature of this offense. Texas averages almost 76 plays per game, a far cry from the 60 plays the WVU defense is used to facing each week.
The Mountaineers won’t have to keep up with the Longhorns to make this offense stumble. A lot of the motions and exoticness of this offense is just for show. Breaking it down, Texas wants to try to establish the run early and not use Ehlinger, unless necessary, in that department. This isn’t to say he isn’t capable of pulling a ball every now and then and grabbing a chunk play. But eventually the motions and movements will lead to misreads and open receivers. Ehlinger isn’t extremely accurate over 15 yards in the air, as long as the defense stays home, it could present trouble for the Texas offense early.
Chris Ash has taken over the reigns of the Texas defense and switched them to a 4 man front. They’ll call it a 4-3. I no longer associate defenses traditionally as the 4-3 and 3-4 have turned into more hybrid defenses of 4-2-5 and 3-3-5. The important part is the front and Texas plays a 4 man front. Much to the delight of former Longhorn Malcolm Roach. Roach didn’t believe the 3-3-5 of former coordinator Todd Orlando unlocked the full potential of the defense. He believes the 4 man front will allow a better pass rush. I can’t say I disagree.
Specifically, this shows true in the play of Junior defensive end Joseph Ossai. Ossai was credited with 3 sacks of Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders last week and has totaled 4 on the season. This along with his 12.5 tackles for loss and 3 forced fumbles makes him a one man wrecking crew along the defensive line. A perfect “pinch, pinch, explode” player, Ossai has the ability to stop this Mountaineer offense all by himself. Look for him to be a finalist for many awards come December.
Moving to the second level, Texas plays a very vanilla style of defense. Ash doesn’t like to bring many extra defenders and they don’t statistically play downhill much. Linebackers, Juwan Mitchell and Demarvion Overshown account for just 8.5 tacles for loss this season. This could be in part to the dominance Ossai creates on the first level or just philosophy itself. The biggest problem with the linebacking unit is balls tossed over their head. The 15-18 yard zone bubble is a tough one to defend and they’ve had a tough time defending it. These two schematically are hole fillers and do a decent job of that ranking 2nd and 3rd on the team in tackles.
Rounding out the back end is the weakest level of the defense. A unit that gives up 278 yards through the air per game and has an awful time trying to tackle in space. The sweet spot is 15-18 yards over the middle and 7-10 yards on the outsides. Neither of these areas are well covered by this defense, nor are they well tackled. The secondary will play almost exclusively with two high safeties but will rarely roll one down in coverage with a Cover 1 man. They can’t afford to with how bad this team is in coverage. The one thing this team does have going for them is creating chaos when it matters. Texas ranks in the top of the Big 12 in turnovers forced, averaging 2 takeaways a game.
Texas Special Teams
Texas’ final piece of the puzzle is an up and down special teams. The specialists themselves are some of the best in the country. Kicker Cameron Dicker is 8-10 on the year with one of the kicks being blocked and has been one of the better big time kickers in college football the last couple of years. Dicker has also slapped a touchback on 38 of his 42 kickoff attempts. Punter Ryan Bujcevski hits the ball decent for a net of 43.2 yards a punt but has had 2 of his punts blocked. The protection of the special teams’ units is the biggest downfall for Texas.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The zone running scheme Texas lives by can present problems with cutback lanes. It will be imperative that the linebacker on the backside not over scrape and leave a wide open hole for Robinson to hit the homerun. With the backside backer staying home and filling a hole, that will leave Tykee Smith and the Alonzo Addae to do what they do best and attack the line of scrimmage. Success with this on first and second down will keep the Texas offense in 3rd down situations they didn’t succeed in last week.
Offensive Line Improvement
Every week. Just keep improving. Leddie Brown and company hit the goal of 135+ rushing yards against Kansas State with 184. Each week looks a little better from this unit. Joseph Ossai will probably be the best player they’ll face all season. I’m going to give this group their toughest goal yet. Let’s see how they respond. No sacks and under 3 TFL’s from Ossai. Hit those numbers, look for WVU to win BIG.
Texas possesses the threat of being in Jarret Doege’s face within 2 seconds every single play. This forces quarterbacks into being inaccurate. Doege has had accuracy issues from time to time this season. The Longhorn defense has capitalized on mistakes time and time again this season. That makes Doege’s accuracy twice the importance this week. First, WVU can’t give Texas possessions with interceptions. Second, this defense is awful in open field tackling. Doege giving his receivers the ball on target in space will spell trouble early and often for the opposition this week. It doesn’t have to be flashy, just accurate.
LINES & PICKS
West Virginia @ #22 Texas (-6)
This line looks about right with WVU’s troubles on the road this season. The total is the line I think has the best potential play in it. Both offenses can move the ball well. The Mountaineers have given extra possessions to the opponent in every road game this season, in prime scoring opportunities. I think you can probably bet on a few easy possessions in this game with quick scores, putting both teams near the 30’s. I do think WVU has a great opportunity to win this game outright but I think the safest play is the over.
Pick: Over 54