Saturday marks a new era in West Virginia football. The Mountaineers technically joined the Big 12 in July, but reality will sink in with Baylor visiting Morgantown. West Virginia is off to a hot 3-0 start, which includes wins over Marshall, James Madison and Maryland. Although the schedule hasn’t been that difficult, the Mountaineers’ offense looks to be in midseason form, and the defense is making progress under new co-coordinators Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson.
Replacing Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III was no easy task, but Baylor remains a threat to win the Big 12 title. New quarterback Nick Florence is off to a good start, and the talent level has been on the rise during Art Briles’ tenure. The Bears dodged a bullet the last two weeks, as they trailed FCS opponent Sam Houston State in Week 3 and held off a pesky Louisiana-Monroe team for a 47-42 victory in Week 4.
Five Storylines to Watch in Baylor vs. West Virginia
1. Can West Virginia establish its ground attack?
With quarterback Geno Smith and one of the nation’s top receiving corps, the rushing attack is almost an afterthought. However, with running back Shawne Alston dealing with a thigh injury against Maryland, the Mountaineers managed only 25 rushing yards on 25 attempts. Alston is expected to play, and Andrew Buie (144 yards, one touchdown) is having a nice season so far. Dustin Garrison suffered a significant knee injury in Orange Bowl workouts last year but had two carries in the win over Maryland. It’s not critical for West Virginia to rush for 200 yards, however, Baylor is allowing 177.7 yards per game on the ground, and the Mountaineers need to establish some balance to reduce the pressure on Smith.
2. Will Baylor be able to get stops on defense?
Veteran coordinator Phil Bennett is a well-respected defensive coach, but the numbers haven’t been pretty under his watch. Baylor ranked 116th nationally in total defense last season and allowed 37.2 points per game. So far this year, the Bears are allowing 492.7 yards and 29.7 points per game. West Virginia’s passing attack has been on fire through the first three games of the season, and it will be impossible for Baylor to completely slow down Geno Smith and his receivers. However, the Bears need to generate a pass rush, as well as force a few turnovers. Baylor ranks second in the Big 12 with 10 turnovers gained through three weeks, but the pass rush has been relatively quiet (1.7 sacks per game).
3. What should we expect from West Virginia’s defense?
As mentioned previously, the Mountaineers’ defense is still a work in progress. West Virginia has allowed more than 20 points twice this season, which will only climb now that the heart of the Big 12 schedule has arrived. The Mountaineers rank 103rd nationally against the pass and have yet to be tested against some of the top offenses in college football. Marshall’s Rakeem Cato threw for 413 yards in the opener, while Maryland freshman quarterback completed 20 of 29 throws for 305 yards in last week’s game. Baylor’s Nick Florence will be toughest test for West Virginia’s secondary, especially with two All-Big 12 candidates at receiver in Terrance Williams and Tevin Reese. Both players are averaging over 20 yards per catch, while Levi Norwood and Lanear Sampson shouldn’t be overlooked.
4. Will Baylor quarterback Nick Florence get off to a slow start once again?
Although the Bears won last week’s game against Louisiana-Monroe, Florence’s slow start has to be a concern for the coaching staff going into Saturday’s game. The senior threw two picks in the first quarter, and even though Baylor has a lot of firepower on its sideline, it cannot afford to fall too far behind West Virginia. Florence doesn’t have Griffin’s athleticism, but he’s not a statue either. In last week’s game, the senior rushed for 55 yards and has 159 on the season. Don’t be surprised if Baylor gets Florence into the game with a few runs, especially if the passing game stalls out early in the first quarter.
5. How many times will West Virginia WR Tavon Austin touch the ball?
In last week’s win over Maryland, Austin was the team’s top playmaker, catching 13 passes for 179 yards and three touchdowns. He also recorded two carries for four yards and had four overall returns for 42 yards. There’s no question Austin is one of the nation’s most dynamic playmakers with the ball in its hands, and Baylor can expect a few reverses or handoffs to the senior. Austin is as dangerous as anyone in the nation with the ball in the open field, but junior Stedman Bailey shouldn’t be overlooked on the outside. The Bears need to find a way to keep Austin in check but also not allow Bailey to surpass the 13 catches for 173 yards and three scores he recorded against James Madison.
Is this the start of a special season for West Virginia? The Mountaineers are a legitimate contender for the national championship, and their road to a potential spot in the BCS title game begins on Saturday against Baylor. West Virginia’s offense is deadly, but it won’t sneak up on any Big 12 teams this year, especially considering Oklahoma State and Texas Tech run similar variations.
If you like offense, this will be the game to watch this Saturday. Both teams should have no trouble moving the ball, but it’s hard to pick against West Virginia at home. The Mountaineers’ defense will give up a lot of yards but finds a way to force a turnover or key play late to seal the victory, while quarterback Geno Smith pads his Heisman stats with another game of 300+ passing yards.
Prediction: West Virginia 41, Baylor 31
by Steven Lassan
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