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Liberty Bowl Preview: West Virginia Mountaineers vs Texas A&M Aggies

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As the 2014 season rides off into the sunset we get set to watch the West Virginia Mountaineers lace 'em up one last time. What are the keys to securing a victory in the Autozone Liberty Bowl in Memphis? Let's find out.

The season goes by so fast. It seems like just last week I was pounding beers with my buddies at the WVU Friday night tailgate party in Atlanta as we all collectively talked ourselves into how the Mountaineers would get off that field without being embarrassed by the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Now here we are 12 games later in a bowl game with the Texas A&M Aggies and their vaunted passing attack on deck. An 8th win and first bowl victory since the historic Orange Bowl would certainly send us into the offseason on the right foot, but do the Mountaineers have what it takes to get the job done? Let's take a look.

First off a few words on Clint Trickett. As most of you know he announced on Friday that after suffering 5 concussions (2 or 3 that he seemingly hid) in 14 months he will be unavailable for the bowl game as he is retiring from football. It goes without saying that WVU football was fortunate that Clint decided to transfer from Florida State to Morgantown to play out his final 2 years of eligibility. Last year yielded uneven results as he learned the offense, but he was the central figure this season to a WVU turnaround that saw the Mountaineers start the year 6-2, finish with their first winning conference record since joining the Big 12, give eventual #1 Alabama all they wanted, give Baylor their only loss of the year and host ESPN's GameDay for only the second time ever. The season was a success by just about any measurable and Clint Trickett was a big reason for that.

My real concern here is with the WVU medical staff. With all due respect to the good work they do, Trickett's case was not their finest hour. He was able to hide a concussion last year and hid at least one more this year. When it happened hasn't been confirmed, but my money would be on the TCU game, when he had his head slammed to the turf after TCU's Josh Carroway (dirty sumbitch) tacked him by the facemask (no penalty was called) and he got up wobbly, nearly falling over before staggering back to the huddle. He was never pulled from the game. This is a problem. When a young man who has a history of concussions takes a hit like that he should come out of the game for immediate evaluation. That hit happened with a few minutes left in the second quarter and Trickett played out the drive, the half and then the game. That's not a good thing.

If that wasn't enough, he suffered his latest concussion against Kansas State as he tackled Wildcat DB Randall Evans following an interception at the end of the first half, but somehow managed to get back on the field for the first series of the third quarter, throwing another interception before finally being pulled from the game. That means after an entire half to evaluate him, the Mountaineer staff cleared him to play the second half, but then yanked him after a series. Again - this is a really bad look for the WVU medical staff and alarmingly unsafe for Trickett.

It's something they need to take a hard look at. The Mountaineer family has recently seen a frightening example of the potential cost of multiple concussions with the sad story of Darryl Talley that has recently come to light. And aside from the obvious concerns for young men with their whole lives in front of them, there are a variety of lawsuits rolling through the courts related to head trauma, so the problem carries with it a boatload of liability. There's simply no reason for WVU to seem like they take anything less than the utmost precaution when it comes to concussions. Right now that does not appear to be the case.

Back to the game.

In The Trenches

Like most games, this one will almost certainly be decided at the line of scrimmage. When Texas A&M has the ball, the Mountaineers will be looking to attack an offensive line that was weak enough this year that O line coach B.J. Anderson will not return to College Station in 2015. The season stats aren't horribly - the Aggies rank right in the middle - 56th nationally - in sacks allowed with 24 and 30th nationally in tackles for loss allowed with 61 - but they're not great.

More likely evidence of the struggles of the A&M line can be found in their inconsistency when running the football. They rank just 95th nationally in rush yards per game with 142.8, but that stat slips all the way to 111th (114.5 ypg) in conference play (side note - given the cream-puffs on the Aggie schedule my stats breakdown will be limited to their 8 conference games). Their backfield has been an exercise in goodness but not greatness, as 6 players have rushed for at least 100 yards on the season (including QB Kenny Hill) but none have rushed for more than 500 and only Trey Williams has an average above 5 yards per carry (6.8).

On the other side of things A&M has been awful. The pass rush is nonexistent - In conference play they've notched only 12 sacks - tied with WVU for 94th nationally - and it just gets uglier after that.  They've got only 32 tackles for loss (120th nationally - WVU ranks 30th nationally with 56 TFL). The Mountaineers have spent all season trying to establish the run - with varying levels of success - but in the Aggies they find an opponent that should be susceptible to a ground pounding. A&M gave up an amazing 271.5 yards per game just on the ground in conference play - 121st nationally. For reference, against other similarly bad teams - Texas Tech ranks 117th and Iowa State 119th - the 'eers went for 249 and 285 respectively.

My good buddy Jed Drenning dug up even more detail on the Agg's ground game struggles. You should definitely give the whole thing a read, but some of these numbers are eye-popping:

The Aggies rush defense started strong before hitting some major bumps in the road. Texas A&M didn’t allow a single rushing touchdown in its first four games. Then it came unhinged. In their final eight contests the Aggies allowed 23 touchdowns on the ground and 273 rushing yards per game. Throw in the tape and you see that the assailants came in all shapes and sizes, from power run teams like Arkansas (285 rush yards), LSU (384) and Alabama (298), to spread attacks such as Auburn (363), Mississippi State (280) and Missouri (335).

Those numbers are as salivating as a good BBQ sandwich on Beale Street for Rushel Shell, Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood - not to mention a WVU O line that would love to end the season pounding an opponent into goo.

To Receive is Divine

Another big question for the Mountaineers will be who among their receiver corps will step up on Monday. Early in the season it was the Kevin White show featuring Mario Alford, but late in the year White has faded, catching 4 or fewer balls in 3 of the last 5 games and eclipsing the 100 yard mark only once in the last 5 games after doing so in all of the first 7.

Some of that slack as been picked up by Daikiel Shorts who has seen a sharp rise in activity with the emergence of Skyler Howard as starting QB. In first 10 games of the season Shorts had just 16 catches and just one game of more than 50 yards. In the two games where Howard saw significant action, Shorts has 8 catches for 122 combined yards and a score. Will 3 weeks of first team reps with White get he and Howard in sync for one last hurrah? Will Howard continue to look more to Shorts and give Mountaineer fans a taste of what to expect in 2015? We'll see.

The Turnover Problem

The biggest miracle of this Mountaineer season has to be that they've been as successful as they have while posting one of the worst turnover margins in the nation. It's ground we've been plowing all season, so I won't bore you with the details - let's just say with a -1.25 per game turnover margin I could count the teams worse than WVU on one hand. The problem certainly has roots in WVU's ball-control (their 29 lost TOs put them 118th nationally) but is equally symptomatic of an inability to turn over opponents; they've only gained 13 turnovers all season - 119th nationally - including an impossible-to-believe 2 fumble recoveries.

The good news is that when they look across the field in Memphis at their opponent they'll see a similar cellar dweller when it comes to creating turnovers. A&M is actually worse then WVU - 121st nationally - with only 12 turnovers forced (7 fumbles, 5 interceptions).

Who Gives a Damn?

When WVU looks at TAMU they see a team that looks a lot like themselves 2 years ago. Once upon a time in 2012 the Mountaineers were the darling of college football, rocketing to a 5-0 record and a top 5 ranking before a defensive collapse slammed them back down to earth in a regular-season campaign that ended 7-5 before a total no-show in the New Era Pinstripes Bowl against Syracuse that saw WVU lose in embarrassing fashion, 38-14.

That tune should sound familiar in College Station. The Aggs similarly started their season 5-0 and made it as high as 6th based primarily on a win at then-top-10 South Carolina that was eventually shown to be fool's gold. A&M hit the meat of their schedule and were ground into dust, losing decisively to Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama before slightly righting the ship with a pair of wins (notably over then #3 Auburn) before dropping their last 2 to Missouri and LSU.

There is coaching staff turnover that reflects this body of work. We already discussed the departure of TAMU's O line coach, but defensive coordinator Mark Snyder (a name Mountaineer fans may remember as a former Marshall coach) was fired the day after the regular season finale when his unit gave up over 500 yards to LSU in a 23-17 loss. Linebackers coach Mark Hagan will serve as interim DC for the bowl game.

So after a year that must feel like such a letdown will A&M be able to summon adequate give-a-damn? Will players respond with fire or meh to a suddenly embattled coaching staff? If the Mountaineers can jump on the A&M early, will the Aggies simply pack it in with the hopes of putting 2014 in the rear-view mirror as quickly as possible? Within that simple question could like the answer to who walks away with the Liberty Bowl trophy on Monday afternoon.