Faster than anybody could have dreamed, we're here at the end. The final regular season game of the West Virginia Mountaineer'ss 2014 football season will be kicking off at 12:00 eastern time in Ames, Iowa against the Iowa State Cyclones.
The Mountaineers enter the game on a 3 game slide, a slide that began most cruelly right as the WVU season was peaking. A 13 point second-half lead over top 10 TCU quickly gave way to a last second loss and that gave way to a bludgeoning at the hands of Texas that gave way to a mistake-filled embarrassment against Kansas State that has many giving up this Mountaineer squad up for dead.
But they're not dead yet. Even more than that we've been here before. Two years ago WVU entered Ames on a 5 game skid and earned a hard-fought victory over the Cyclones to right the ship and become bowl-eligable. It wasn't easy then and it most certainly won't be easy now. Iowa State isn't Rutgers, the Mountaineers favorite skid-stopper of the last 20 years. But they're also not Oklahoma and a road win in Jack Trice Stadium is well within the capabilities of WVU. Can they do it? Here's 8 burning questions on which that game's outcome will hinge.
Who will start at quarterback for West Virginia?
This has been the question at the top of WVU fan's minds since the final gun against Kansas State on Thursday night ended the debut of backup signal caller Skyler Howard. He took the reins against KSU in the third quarter after Clint Trickett exited the game with a concussion and was more than capable. Honestly he was far more effective than Trickett had been since falling victim to a first quarter facemask-tackle against TCU (a dirty play that I'll remind you wasn't flagged).
Howard entered the game and went 15/23 for 198 yards and a pair of scores. He ran for 16 yards including a crucial third down conversion and left a lot of yards on the field had he decided to run more. Of the 4 drives he led, 3 ended in scores (2 TD, 1 FG) and the other ended in a failed 4th down conversion at the KSU 26 yard line that probably should have been a field goal instead.
There's a compelling case to be made that Skyler Howard gives this WVU team the best chance to win. But more importantly, for reasons having to do with his health, Clint Trickett almost certainly shouldn't play in this game. He's now suffered 3 concussions that we know about in about 12 months of football. He's not a durable guy and hits seem to affect him a great deal. He's a bright kid who's got a great future after football and the concern for that future needs to carry far more weight than this single not-terribly-important football game. Maybe he can heal up and return for an appearance in the bowl game, but right now playing football is dangerous for Clint Trickett. He's given this Mountaineer team more than any of us had any right to expect and it is unfortunate, but Clint needs to take care of Clint - or more accurately the Mountaineer staff that has now let him play in portions of two games where he kept a concussion from them needs to take care of Clint. He's taken good care of this WVU team long enough.
Can WVU hold on to the ball?
During this 3 game skid the Mountaineers have faced a pair of teams that have built quite an impressive resume when it comes to turnover margin, albeit for very different reasons. The TCU D is a ball-hawking unit comprised of playmaking dynamos. They get their hands in to strip, they snatch interceptions out of the air and they pounce on anything that rolls. Kansas State on the other hand sits patiently back and waits for you to mess up. They know if they force you to run plays, eventually you'll screw up. And they'll be there. WVU turned the ball over a combined 9 times against both these teams - 5 against TCU and 4 against KSU.
The good news is Iowa State is neither of these teams. They sit smack-dab in the middle of the rankings - literally - with a net zero turnover margin. They've collected 12 turnovers (3 fumbles, 9 interceptions) and given up 12 (5 fumbles, 7 interceptions).
The bad news is that West Virginia is still the same team they've been all year. They've been reckless with the ball (16 fumbles lost, 10 interceptions) while failing to offset that recklessness with defensive pressure on the other team (they've collected just two fumbles and 9 interceptions). That's how you end up with the third-worst turnover margin in the nation. Many of these errors have been unforced, from the numerous muffed punts to Wendell Smallwood's botched handoff last week at the goal line. The Mountaineer team has actually gotten sloppier as the season has gone on. They started with just a single turnover in their first two games combined before exploding for 4 in the season's 3rd game and they haven't looked back since.
West Virginia has been winning in spite of their propensity to hand the ball over to the opposition - often on their side of the field. There's no reason to think that changes on Saturday.
Will the Mountaineer ground game find traction?
The Iowa State defense has actually allowed nearly as much yardage on the ground (2,473) as through the air (2,582). In today's college football world, where teams throw the ball so much - and in particular in the Big 12 - giving up as many yards on the ground as through the air means teams want to run against you. That means you aren't very good at defending the run. The Cyclones are 121st nationally in average rush yards allowed per game at 247.3. The WVU offensive line hasn't been setting the world on fire, but they should be able to handle a young Cyclone front that starts a freshman and sophomore between a junior and senior. That should bode well for WVU's offense finally gaining some purchase on the ground.
Will Dreamius Smith finally get some carries?
Hell I don't know. With Wendell Smallwood doing everything but writing "I'm really, really tired" on his helmet to show how worn down he is by this season, you'd think WVU would want to spread the load. Yet there they were last week feeding Smallwood in a goal line situation and there was Smallwood coughing up the ball. I don't hold that against him as he's seen way more work than he ever anticipated in the wake of Rushel Shell's injury, but it seems silly to have a guy in Smith who is clearly the only bona fide home-run hitter among this WVU RB corps only getting 12, 10, 11 carries (Smith's numbers in the 3 game losing streak). Most likely WVU does what they've been doing and smashes Shell and Smallwood into the ISU line for a couple quarters before giving Dreamius his token 10 carries. Let's just hope nobody's fumbled the game away first.
Will this be Joe DeForest's last regular season game on the WVU sideline?
Gosh I hope so. It is now twice in three years that the unit DeForest was charged with running has been an unmitigated disaster of historical proportions. At some point you need accountability.
Will this be Iowa State head coach Paul Rhodes' last game on the ISU sideline?
Quite possibly. And if WVU by some miracle manages to embarrass the Cyclones on the scoreboard, almost certainly. Paul Rhodes will always be the defensive coordinator who engineered the most painful loss in my life as a Mountaineer fan (for those that don't remember he was Pitt's DC for The Game in 2007) so I guess it would be nice to send him packing. But given the comparative scale, it would be a little like peeing on someone's tire after they set fire to your house.
So will WVU be able to win this one running away?
Fat chance. Ames is a notoriously tough place to play and despite Rhodes' unspectacular record they regularly bring 50,000 plus to the stadium. Having talked to folks who were in Ames for WVU's win there two years ago, it was a particularly rowdy crowd that was surprising in its fervor.
Aside from all that, WVU just doesn't beat on the Cyclones. Two years ago the Mountaineers twice built a 10 point lead but could never pull away and ISU actually went in front by a point before Tavon Austin's 75 yard score with 6:41 left gave WVU the lead for good and a defensive stop inside the 10 yard line sealed the deal for the Mountaineers.
Last year was even worse for WVU as they built a 31-7 2nd quarter lead over the Cyclones that would evaporate to nothing over the next two hours. Fumbles, a stalled offense and countless defensive miscues allowed ISU to tie it up at 38 with a minute left in regulation before stopping WVU in the second overtime for the 52-44 win. That was a 2-9 team then and this is a 2-8 team now. It just doesn't seem like anything comes easy for WVU against the Cyclones and I wouldn't expect any less on Saturday. If WVU is going to win, they're going to have to earn it. The players knowing they're probably playing for their coach's job will only bolster the ISU resolve.
So can WVU pull out the win and get to 7-5?
No idea. They should be able to and I'd like to think Skyler Howard will infuse this offense with some life and break off a couple third down runs to crush the ISU resolve. West Virginia almost certainly has more talent than Iowa State - especially at key positions where the Mountaineers boast both a Biletnikoff Award finalist in wide receiver Kevin White (98 catches, 1,270 yards, 9 TDs) and a Lou Groza Award finalist in kicker Josh Lambert (24/32, 8 for 8 inside 30 yards, 4/5 from 50+ yards). But WVU has absolutely killed itself with mistakes in the month of November, particularly in the last two games where they dug holes against Texas (down 24-3 at the half) and Kansas State (down 20-3 in the third quarter) that were just too deep to escape.
If Howard does start, that would eliminate many of the turnovers (Trickett has thrown 5 interceptions during the 3 game losing streak) but that's no magic bullet and there have been plenty of mistakes to go around. I'd say the talent differential alone gives WVU a better than coin flip's chance of coming up with a win, but their sloppiness trajectory for 2014 is pretty grim. I think this one will feel a lot like 2012 - tight, tight, tight but a big play to pull it out.
Stick around the Musket for some in-game chatter and post-game breakdowns. We'll see how the Mountaineers fare and where their bowl destination could be. Keep your fingers crossed.