Despite fielding the least experienced team in the Big 12 and one of the youngest in the nation, the West Virginia Mountaineers opened the 2017 season with high expectations coming off a 10-win season in 2016. One of the biggest reasons for optimism centered on new quarterback Will Grier, the former Florida starter, who is a perfect fit in head coach Dana Holgorsen’s offense.
The first test came immediately in a non-conference clash against former Big East rival Virginia Tech. The Mountaineers kept pace all game, and forced three ties after halftime, but fell 31-24. Grier led an offensive explosion over the next three weeks as WVU averaged 57.0 points in wins over East Carolina, FCS opponent Delaware State and Kansas, respectively, but the Mountaineers showed vulnerability against the Jayhawks in their Big 12 opener, allowing a staggering 367 rushing yards and 7.6 yards per carry in the 56-34 victory.
West Virginia posted more than 500 total yards for the fifth straight time against TCU, but the Mountaineers lost the turnover battle to the Horned Frogs and fell 31-24 in their first big conference test of the season. The Mountaineers then overcame an 18-point halftime deficit to beat No. 24 Texas Tech 46-35 this past Saturday to finish the first half on a high note. It was far from a perfect performance, however, as WVU was outgained for the first time all season (513-396) and the offensive line allowed a season-high four sacks.
Now 4-2 overall and 2-1 in Big 12 play, West Virginia is back where it started: ranked in the Top 25 and in position to compete for a conference title. Here, we take a look back at the first six weeks of the season for the Mountaineers, and also preview the second half, which features arguably the toughest remaining schedule of any conference foe.
Offensive MVP: QB Will Grier
There are several candidates for this category. Running back Justin Crawford ranks second in the Big 12 with 609 rushing yards and an average of 101.5 yards per game, as well as seven touchdowns on the ground. Crawford has averaged 6.5 yards per carry, which ranks fifth in the league, and has surpassed 100 rushing yards five times. Also, wide receiver David Sills ranks third in the conference with 100.2 receiving yards per game and leads the nation with 12 TD catches. Sills has 39 receptions for 601 yards, good for 15.4 yards per catch.
But Grier has led the charge, having completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 2,092 yards, a conference-best 21 touchdowns and just five interceptions. The 6-foot-2, 214-pound junior ranks third in the Big 12 with 348.7 passing yards per game, has surpassed 300 yards through the air in all six games with at least two TDs in each contest as well. Though he has been intercepted in five games, Grier has limited his mistakes and has yet to be picked off more than once in a game thus far.
Defensive MVP: LB Al-Rasheed Benton
Kyzir White leads the team and ranks second in the Big 12 with three interceptions, including a game-sealing pick against Texas Tech, but Benton is the clear defensive MVP due to his all-around performance. Benton leads the Mountaineers with 52 total tackles and 7.0 tackles for a loss, which rank fifth and sixth in the Big 12, respectively. Benton racked up a season-high 12 stops in the win over Kansas, and has made at least eight stops in all six games. He also has a sack and an interception.
Best Moment of First Half: Second-half comeback to beat Texas Tech
West Virginia had failed to beat a ranked opponent in 10 consecutive tries, including earlier losses this season to Virginia Tech and TCU, before defeating Texas Tech on Saturday. Grier tossed four of his five TD passes in the second half against the Red Raiders, and rallied the Mountaineers to a pivotal Big 12 victory.
Best Newcomer: QB Will Grier
Few newcomers across the country have had a bigger impact. Grier also has a solid supporting cast including Crawford, Sills and receivers Gary Jennings (48 receptions, 586 yards, 1 TD) and Ka’Raun White (31, 461, 5), which gives the strong-armed junior an opportunity to carry his strong start into the second half.
Biggest Surprise: Struggling run defense
West Virginia ranked third in the Big 12 in run defense (168.2 rushing ypg allowed) in 2016. Though the Mountaineers were forced to rebuild their defensive line, because of experience in the linebacker corps, few expected the unit to fall to ninth in the league in this category (210.7 ypg). WVU has surrendered 5.27 yards per carry – up more than a full yard per attempt over last year’s average.
Three Things to Watch in Second Half
1. Can the Mountaineers stop the run?
The biggest surprise of the first half also is the biggest question for the second. The defensive line has six games of experience under its belt, so youth is no longer an excuse. West Virginia must improve up front if the Mountaineers hope to compete for a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game.
2. Will the pass rush improve?
Similarly, the West Virginia pass rush has struggled in 2017. Though the unit showed progress with two sacks against Texas Tech, the Mountaineers have recorded just seven this season, and three of those came against FCS opponent Delaware State. WVU defenders have an ugly 3.5 percent sack rate overall, and it's been even worse (2.2 percent) against FBS opponents.
3. Can Mountaineers keep Grier healthy?
On the other side of the ball, the Mountaineers have surrendered 11 sacks and a 4.3 percent sack rate this season, and Grier was sacked four times in 45 pass plays (8.9 percent) against Texas Tech. Grier also took several big hits on throws against the Red Raiders, including a dangerous low shot in the second quarter that could have easily resulted in a severe injury. Holgorsen isn’t afraid to let Grier run (he has 45 carries for 104 yards and 2 TDs on the ground overall), and the QB is hesitant to slide, adding to the risk of possible injury. If the first half MVP and top newcomer goes down, WVU’s Big 12 championship hopes would go down with him.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 25 at Oklahoma
Despite the loss to Iowa State, and TCU's undefeated start, the Sooners are still the team to beat in the Big 12, and winning in Norman won’t be easy in the season finale. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield is one of the best players in the nation, and the Sooners will likely still be in the mix for a College Football Playoff spot in late November.
2. Oct. 28 Oklahoma State
Oklahoma and TCU may be the favorites to win the Big 12, but Oklahoma State is just as dangerous. The Cowboys have arguably the most explosive passing duo in the country with quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington, who have already connected for six touchdowns and pose a threat to go the distance on every play. Oklahoma State also has allowed the fewest yards per play (4.9) of any Big 12 defense this season.
3. Nov. 11 at Kansas State
K-State hasn’t played like the Big 12 title contenders we expected, but it would be foolish to count out Bill Snyder’s Wildcats — even with a backup quarterback. Starter Jesse Ertz is currently nursing a knee sprain, but he could be back under center when the Mountaineers make the long trip to Manhattan in November.
4. Nov. 18 Texas
Texas has shown improvement under new head coach Tom Herman, and the Longhorns are arguably the most talented team in the Big 12 from top to bottom. It wouldn’t be a shock for the Horns to play the spoiler role in the second half, and knock off a Big 12 contender before the end of the season.
5. Nov. 4 vs. Iowa State
Led by running back David Montgomery, wide receiver Allen Lazard and two-way playmaker Joel Lanning, the Cyclones picked up the most shocking win of the season, beating Oklahoma 38-31 in Norman. Iowa State is now 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big 12 (just like West Virginia), and with quality losses to Iowa and Texas by a combined 13 points, the Cyclones have played like a legitimate bowl team in 2017.
6. Oct. 21 at Baylor
There may not be a more disappointing team in the FBS this season, certainly the Big 12. The Bears are 0-6 under new head coach Matt Rhule, who has a monumental rebuilding job ahead of him. Nevertheless, Baylor still has some playmakers and put a scare into Oklahoma, so even the winless Bears pose a threat.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Top photo courtesy of wvusports.com)