Two years ago the West Virginia Mountaineers landed in Lubbock as a top 5 BCS title darkhorse. They had a top-tier Heisman candidate, high-powered offensive attack and a little too much swagger for their own good. Four hours later they were blown away by the west Texas winds and a precipitous fall had begun.
Now the Mountaineers return to the scene of the crime with a chance to bring things full circle and make a statement that they're back among the top half of the Big 12. This is a must-win game for WVU if they want to make a bowl game. There are no more gimmies left on this schedule and every win will be precious - you simply can't miss an opportunity to get a win. If this team is as good as we think they are, this is a game they will win.
So let's look at 5 things to watch for:
1) Texas Tech defense gets a boost
The struggles of the Red Raider defense have been well-documented, but they'll get a jolt on Saturday when linebacker Chris Payne makes only his second appearance of the season after tearing his Achilles tendon in February. From RedRaiders.com:
"He’s actually looked really well," Tech interim defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. "He’s moving great. You talk about a great story."
Payne credits hours of rehab he did two or three times a day for his quick return. He first worked to regain mobility, then strength and flexibility, then to cut on the field.
When you're giving up 258 yards on the ground (good for 124th nationally) you'll take all the help you can get.
2) Overturn the turnover trend
The turnover struggles of the Mountaineers are well-documented. After making a living off turnovers in 2013, the WVU defense has managed a paltry 3 turnovers - all interceptions - in 5 games. Well the Red Raiders will see that ineptitude and raise WVU a -1.60 turnover per game margin - good for 120th in America and tied with....wait for it... WEST VIRGINIA! Who's the only major-5 league team with a worse margin? The hapless Michigan Wolverines.
But back to the Red Raiders. Of their 13 lost turnovers, 12 of them are interceptions. Mike Casazza astutely pointed out in his Good/Bad column on Monday the Red Raiders have lost the turnover battle in their last 13 games. That's an insane stat. West Virginia hasn't won it since the opener against Alabama. I've beaten the fumble thing into the ground, but at some point this has to break for WVU, right? And what better time than against a team that's notoriously sloppy protecting the ball but only has a single fumble lost all year.
3) Red Zone
We've all talked a lot about WVU's struggles in the red zone. Much like turnovers. Texas Tech's stats seem to suggest help could be on the way. The Red Raiders have allowed 24 scores on 26 trips (92.3% for 114th nationally). Of those scores 19 of them were touchdowns - 73.1% and also 114th nationally.
Ironically WVU isn't much better in this category having allowed an opponent to score every time they get inside the 20, but they've only allowed 11 total trips (9 touchdowns, 2 field goals). Texas Tech averages 30 points a game so it will be important for WVU to capitaliize on their opportunities. If the stats are to be believed, they'll have the chances.
4) Just Catch It
WVU just needs to field punts here. Don't worry about returns, don't get cute, just catch the ball. One of the surest ways to let this game slip away is going to be giving the ball to Texas Tech off a muffed punt. It's quite discouraging that the Mountaineers don't seem to have any options besides the embattled Jordan Thompson. Could we see Dravon Henry or Mario Alford (who muffed some himself last year) pushed into service? I would hope so.
And I'd be lying if I told you those swirling winds don't scare the crap out of me. Speaking of that -
5) West Texas Winds
When these two teams met in 2012, the weather was something that clearly got into the team's head - particularly quarterback Geno Smith. The swirling west Texas winds were gusting at 25-30 miles per hour and had a noticeable effect on the team. The good news is the forecast for Saturday's noon kickoff doesn't look too bad:
So there we have it. WVU has a chance to set a successful trajectory for their season by doing what the 2012 squad couldn't and taking care of business in Lubbock. We'll be watching and tweeting - follow the site on @SmokingMusket and follow me at @abpriddy. You might even end up on the Retweet.
Let's go grab the second conference win of the season and LET'S GOOOOOO!!!!