Date: October 21th, 2017
Time: 8:00pm EST
Venue: McLane Stadium, Waco, Texas
Streaming: FoxSportsGo or the FoxSportsGo app
Radio: Click HERE for a complete list of radio affiliates in West Virginia. If you live outside of the state, or don’t live close enough to a radio affiliate, you can listen to the Mountaineer Sports Network from IMG on TuneIn Radio.
Spread: West Virginia -9 (Oddshark)
A clean white-white-blue look for the Mountaineers this weekend should contrast nicely with whatever monstrosity Baylor ends up wearing.
Baylor: The Bears have yet to announce their combo as of the writing of this preview but are striping their stadium for Homecoming. Methinks they'll do something funky to play off of that.
Know the Enemy
Series History: The Mountaineers lead the all-time series 3-2 after a 24-21 win in Morgantown last year.
Record: (0-6). Baylor has been the recipient of a strong karma slap to open 2017. They opened the season with bad losses to Liberty, UTSA, and Duke, but had actually been playing better in the conference prior to last weekend's 59-16 shellacking at the hands of Oklahoma State.
Head Coach: Matt Rhule. Rhule is in his first year at Baylor after spending the previous four seasons in the same role at Temple. He led the Owls to their first ever back-to-back 10-win seasons, and you figure it's only a matter of time before he rights the ship in Waco.
Offensive Coordinator: Glenn Thomas/Jeff Nixon. Thomas and Nixon are both in their first year in Waco. Thomas followed Rhule to Baylor after spending the previous two seasons as his OC at Temple, while Nixon has spent the last decade bouncing around the NFL, most recently serving as TE coach for the 49ers.
Defensive Coordinator: Phil Snow. Snow is in his first season at Baylor after filling the same role at Temple for the last four years. The Owls led the AAC in defense in both 2015 and 2016.
By the Numbers
As a reminder, I define explosive plays as runs of 10+ yards and passes of 20+ yards based on data found on cfbstats.com.
- Explosive Play % is calculated by dividing the number of explosive plays generated (or allowed) by the total number of plays run (or faced).
- Big Play Differential is the number of explosive plays generated minus the number of explosive plays allowed.
- Toxic Differential is simply Big Play Differential plus Turnover Margin.
Statistically speaking, 2017 Baylor is a far cry from the squads that have wreaked havoc on the Big 12 over the last decade. Points per game, yards per game, and explosive plays are all average or worse, which is weird because as you'll see in a minute, they still have a lot of the same guys who always used to cause us problems.
Defensively they've been even worse, ranking in the 10th percentile or worse in scoring defense, total defense, yards allowed per play, and explosive plays allowed per game. We should have no problem moving the ball.
When we have the ball
Players to watch: LB Taylor Young, LB Clay Johnston, DT Ira Lewis, S Taion Sells
Baylor enters Saturday a depleted unit searching for an identity. They've been hit pretty badly by injuries, particularly in the secondary, which hasn't started the same combination of guys for any of their six games. And it shows - as mentioned above, the Bears are near the bottom of the country in most relevant statistical categories.
That’s not to say that they don’t have guys though. Despite their inconsistency, Harrison Hard, Taion Sells, Verkedric Vaughns, and wide receiver convert Blake Lynch are all decent players on the back end, while Ira Lewis has played well up front. The strength of the unit though is undoubtedly at linebacker, where Taylor Young and Chad Johnston are both extremely active. Young in particular was everywhere against us a year ago, registering 15 stops in a losing effort, but Johnston is having a stellar sophomore campaign and is leading the team in tackles this year.
Key to the game: Establish the run
With Will and Co playing so well lately and Baylor’s defense playing so inconsistently against the pass, the temptation will be there to let it fly early and often. Lord knows that our guys can take care of themselves on the outside, and Will has put it right on the money as often as anybody could hope this year. However, for a couple of reasons I feel that it’s more important this week that we come out and try to rediscover our groove on the ground.
First, Baylor gives up 241 yards per game on the ground on about 5.6 ypc and gives up big plays 16.5% of the time; they’re wildly susceptible to it and we can run it as well or better than anybody else they’ve played.
Second, and most importantly, I think it could take some of the air out of their stadium. Consider that it’s Homecoming for them, and a night game, and they’re 0-6 this year with not much to play for besides ruining somebody’s season. We may well have to weather an early storm on Saturday night, and I think that a great way to do it would be to come out and just run the ball down their throats. If they’re going to somehow pull this upset, they’re going to need their fans to do it; nothing deflates a crowd quite like the realization that you can’t stop the other team, and that’s even more palpable when they’re just jamming the ball down your throat over and over again. Us being us, we’re going to take our shots downfield regardless, but I think running the ball early (provided we're running it well) eliminates a potential shootout scenario that keeps their crowd energized into the second half.
When they have the ball
Players to watch: QB Zach Smith, RB John Lovett, RB Terence Williams, WR Denzel Mims
Baylor's offense has somehow had to deal with even more injuries than their defense - it's gotten to the point where the guys that they've put out there to replace guys are now getting hurt. This obviously doesn’t bode well for consistency over the course of a long season, but despite that, they still have plenty of talent on that side of the ball.
QB Zach Smith returns after an up-and-down season deputizing for the oft-injured Seth Russell. He's been considerably less efficient this year with the full-time gig (59% completions in 2016 vs 52% in 2017), but has still been stereptypically Baylor when attacking downfield (14 passes of 20+ yards, 5 of 50+).
His main threat on the outside is sophomore Denzel Mims, an absolute burner who’s averaging 20.5 yards per catch and a touchdown every three times he touches the ball. Other targets include Pooh Stricklin and Tony Nicholson, but now there's word that Stricklin may miss Saturday with a sprained foot, which leaves the other two as the only Baylor receivers with more than 5 catches on the year.
On the ground, their best guy this year has been freshman John Lovett, but he too is apparently in danger of missing the game with an injury. Behind him, Terence Williams and JaMycal Hasty both return and have been decent, with Rhule announcing that Williams will start.
Overall, it's definitely not the Baylor we've become accustomed to, but they have threats we need to be wary of. It’s just that to this point, they haven’t found the consistency required to be a high-level offense week-in, week-out.
Key to the game: Make Smith beat us
Strategically, they're very much the same old Baylor - they still want to run the ball to set up their vertical passing game, as evidenced by their first half run-pass ratio of 55/45. The problem is that they've spent so much time playing from behind that they've been forced to pass, and unfortunately for them they're not great at it.
Zach Smith is a decent QB, but I think realistically we can think of him kind of like a poor man's Skyler Howard - he's OK at attacking people deep, but can be fairly erratic on intermediate throws. Those 52% completions come on a Bradford-esque 7.3 yards per attempt; only Kansas' Peyton Bender is worse in the conference. In my mind that means we need to put him in passing situations and then get after him. I'm expecting something similar to what we did to Texas Tech in the second half last week. I think we sell out to stop the run on early downs and then blitz him on 2nd and 3rd and long. Make him move around and get rid of it before he wants to. He's thrown interceptions in 4 out of 6 games this year, including each of the last two; there's no reason to think we can't force him into some mistakes.
Players to watch: K Connor Martin, PR Tony Nicholson
A couple things of note with regards to Baylor's special teams: they have a good kicker (Martin is 11/13 on the year), and their punt returner averages almost 13 yards per return. Other that that they're pretty meh - both coverage units are middle of the road in conference, and their kickoff team is even worse than that. Our average special teams should have no problem playing them to a stalemate.
Key to the game: No big plays
On paper, this has all the makings of a classic Mountaineer egg-laying - road night game against a team that we have no business losing to coming off a big win? Terrifying under normal circumstances. However, I don't think these are normal circumstances, simply because to this point we haven't looked like egg-layers.
Think about where we've been this year. We went toe-to-toe with Virginia Tech Week 1, answering their every punch with a counter-punch. We went down 17-3 on the road to Top 10 TCU after a backbreaking INT -> big play TD sequence; it would've been easy to roll over right then and there and let them get on with the rout, but we didn't. We fought back and had every chance to tie or maybe even win it at the end. Then there was last week. Down 18 in the 3rd quarter on Homecoming with the students abandoning our cause. A bleak situation. We responded by scoring 29 unanswered to roll to a 46-35 win.
Simply put, this team has had plenty of chances to lay eggs this year and has refused, and last Saturday's comeback really felt like we'd turned a corner. I think we go into Waco and handle ourselves Saturday. We're definitely going to get their best shot, but we are much better at football than them. I think we absorb everything they throw at us before rolling to a comfortable win. LET'S GO!
West Virginia 45 Baylor 24