Date: November 18th, 2017
Time: 12:00pm EST
Venue: Mountaineer Field, Morgantown, WV
Streaming: WatchESPN or the WatchESPN 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 -3.5 (Oddshark)
The Mountaineers are rocking blue-blue-white this weekend. This is an absolutely gorgeous combo that we’ve performed very well in over the years. Not a bad choice at all to see our seniors off.
The Longhorns are another team that seems bound by tradition with regards to their uniform combos. And that's just fine. They're the away team, which means they're wearing all white.
Know the Enemy
Series History: The Mountaineers actually lead the all-time series with Texas 4-2 and have won two on the trot, including a 38-20 victory the last time they visited Morgantown.
Record: (5-5). Texas was written off a bit after an opening week loss to Maryland, but since then they've actually put together a pretty solid season. Don't let the record fool you - they've played the nation's second toughest schedule and lost to USC, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State by a combined 11 points. They also beat Iowa State before people knew they were good. Like us, they're a few bounces away from something much more impressive.
Head Coach: Tom Herman. Herman’s first year in Austin probably isn’t going quite as well as he would’ve hoped, but the Longhorns have continued to battle and have saved some of their best football for the top teams in the conference. There's something to be said for that.
Offensive Coordinator: Tim Beck. Beck is in his first year as an OC in Austin following two years in a co-Offensive Coordinator role at Ohio State. He has 29 years of coaching experience, including 9 years of head coaching at Texas high schools.
Defensive Coordinator: Todd Orlando. Orlando is in his first year at Texas after following Tom Herman over from Houston. He’s spent the last 12 years in the same role at various schools.
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.
Texas is still figuring out who they are offensively, but those boys can play some D. They're in the top third of the country in most traditional statistics, and though they give up big plays here and there, they are absolutely elite on 3rd down and in the red zone.
On the other sideline, we've remained relatively stable offensively, buoyed by one of the nation's most explosive passing attacks, but the defense has also been quietly improving since the middle of October, with the Dawgs ranking 1st in the conference in scoring and 2nd in total defense for the month of November. If you want to argue about the nature of those opponents, well, fine, but I'm not sure how valid of a point that is this week against the Longhorns.
When we have the ball
Players to watch: LB Malik Jefferson, LB Breckyn Hager, FS Brandon Jones, DT Poona Ford, SS Deshon Elliott
As I mentioned above, Texas' defense is finally starting to bear the fruits of several consecutive strong recruiting classes. All 11 starters return from a year ago, and with those highly-touted freshmen of yesteryear now being sophomores, juniors and seniors they've predictably improved, entering Saturday ranked 2nd in the Big 12 in both scoring and total defense.
Up front, Poona Ford continues to anchor the Longhorns' and is probably the conference's premier space-eater on the interior. He's flanked on either side by Charles Omenihu and Chris Nelson, and together the three of them form the most talented front we've seen outside of Tech or TCU. Much like our own group, there's not a ton of statistical production to speak of, but they do an excellent job of establishing the line of scrimmage and keeping blockers away from their linebackers.
The backers are an extremely athletic bunch led by Malik Jefferson, who as a junior is finally displaying the consistent week-to-week production to match his yearly hype. His 93 tackles and 10 TFL rank 3rd and 7th in the conference, respectively. Classmates Anthony Wheeler and Breckyn Hager have been fairly disruptive, as well, with Wheeler lining up in the middle and Hager operating in a Bruce Irvin-type of role off the edge.
The back end is absolutely loaded with talent. Cornerback took a hit recently with the suspension of Holton Hill, but Kris Boyd and Davante Davis (Hill's replacement) both look the part with 10 PBU's and an interception between them, and Boyd especially would probably walk into our starting lineup. The real strength of the group though is at safety, where Brandon Jones and DeShon Elliott are both performing at an extremely high level. Elliott in particular has been exceptional, snatching 6 picks (and taking 2 to the house) to go along with 52 tackles and 8.5 TFL.
Overall, it’s arguably the best group we’ve played. Statistically they may not be as good as TCU and Virginia Tech, but if you line them up and compare them man to man, there’s not too many teams in the country that can match them for pure talent.
Key to the game: Isolate their corners, ruin their day
Strategically Texas will resemble us a bit in what they try to do - they’ll play aggressively on early downs in an effort to get people into obvious passing situations where they can use their versatility to create confusion and force sacks/turnovers. And to this point they’ve been very effective at it - their 25 sacks are 2nd in the conference behind only TCU, their 18 takeaways are 4th, and they’re 7th nationally in 3rd down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 28% of the time.
However, as I mentioned earlier, they’re also prone to giving up big plays, especially through the air. The 4.3 carries of 10+ yards per game they’re allowing is better than average, but the 4.3 passes of 20+ yards they’re allowing places them in the 11th percentile nationally (and ties them with Pitt). If you’ve watched us or read any of these previews at all this year then you probably know what I’m going to say next - we need to set them up and attack them downfield through the air. That means running the ball effectively enough that we’re able to force that 8th man into the box, identifying who doesn’t have help on the outside, and then taking advantage. Grier is on pace to set the NCAA record for deep passing yards this year (yards gained from throws traveling more than 20 yards downfield) and we’ve spent three months now watching our guys, and Sills and White in particular, abuse single coverage - I don’t care how good Texas’ guys look in their uniforms, if we’re able to get them singled up anywhere on the field I trust Grier and Co. to recognize it and do their thing.
When they have the ball
Players to watch: QB Shane Buechele, QB Sam Ehlinger RB Kyle Porter, RB Chris Warren, WR Collin Johnson, WR Lil'Jordan Humphrey
As I mentioned above, the Longhorns still seem to be figuring things out offensively, but after glancing down their depth chart and considering their coaching situation it makes sense. They have a bunch of youngsters playing big minutes at skill positions in new system and are probably a year behind their defense on the development curve.
At quarterback, you’ll notice this is the first time this year that I’ve listed two as players to watch. That’s because it’s not exactly clear what Texas will do there. Shane Buechele has been the guy lately following a concussion to Ehlinger, but the latter gave the Longhorns a nice spark earlier this year when he got a chance. Buechele is the better passer of the two, completing 66% of his passes for an average of 7 yards per attempt. However, Ehlinger is the better runner, and is averaging nearly 15 carries per game when healthy. I think we can assume Buechele will get the start, but need to be aware of the threats posed by both.
On the ground it’s a bit of a running back by committee situation with nobody averaging over 10 carries per game. Chris Warren, Kyle Porter, Toneil Carter, and Daniel Young will all get touches, and all of them are reasonably effective in their own ways. At 6’3 250, Warren is the bruiser of the bunch, while the 5’10 220 lb Porter offers a bit more explosiveness. Carter and Young are both freshmen and seem like they’re more supplementary players at this point, but all four are averaging at least 5 carries and all four have scored touchdowns. Overall, it’s a rushing attack that’s averaging just 3.5 yards per carry so far this year, and if you remove the 406 yards they rolled up against an over-matched San Jose State team then they’re only averaging 105 yards per game. We have to make sure we continue to fly to the ball like we have been, but if I’m being honest I don’t expect them to give us too much trouble.
The bigger problem will probably be on the outside where the main targets have been Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who both go about 6’5 230 and provide every bit of the physical presence that Lazard and Bailey did two weeks ago. True freshman Reggie Hemphill-Mapps is the main operator out of the slot, where he’s joined by a familiar face in senior Armanti Foreman. Those are the four who average more than 2 catches per game, but make no mistake that any of the eight or so guys that they throw out there are capable of making plays against us.
Key to the game: Limit big plays, force field goals
In a league of explosive offenses, only Kansas has produced less explosive plays than Texas has this year. They’re in the 18th percentile nationally in explosive play percentage and 22nd percentile in yards per play, and to this point that’s led to 5 losses. In my mind, that means our defensive key is continuing that trend.
We’ll obviously pick our spots to get after Buechele/Ehlinger, but this week I think it’s more important that we work to keep everything in front of us and prevent home runs. In addition to the relative lack of explosion, Texas isn’t the most efficient offense that we’ve seen either, and considering the weather I think it stands to reason that the more plays we force them to run, the more likely it is that they make a few mistakes.
Beyond that though, they’re ranked 125th nationally in field goal percentage. They’ve only made 7 of their 15 field goal attempts this year, which means that every time we prevent them from scoring a touchdown we’re making it a coin flip as to whether or not they’ll get anything. Those are odds that we’ll take every day of the week. If we hold them to field goals on more than half of their red zones trips, I think we have a very good chance of winning the game.
Players to watch: P Michael Dickson, PR Reggie Hemphill-Mapps
“Best punter I’ve ever seen... he needs to go pro right now.”
That’s Dana earlier this week, and that’s no joke; I’ve noticed Texas every week when I put my numbers together because they’re literally averaging 50 yards per punt. Unfortunately this looks like another week when we’re going to be facing an uphill battle with regards to field position. As for the rest of their special teams, they’re above average or better at everything, which is about what you’d expect from a roster with as much talent as they have. As I mentioned above though, their one weakness seems to be field goal kicking, so it’s imperative that our defense stands up in the red zone and makes them kick the damn thing.
Regardless of opponent, I find Senior Day to be the most important home game of the year. For a select group of players, it's the last time they'll get to lace 'em up at Mountaineer Field, and for us fans it’s the last chance we'll get to pay our respects to that group. This is last time we’ll get to see the guys like Kyle Bosch, and Justin Crawford, and Elijah Wellman. It’s the last time we’ll get to see Al Benton, and Xavier Preston, and Mike Daniels, and Elijah Battle. It’s the last time we’ll get to see the White Bros.
It’s hard to put that kind of thing into perspective. You’re obviously sad that those guys are moving on because of what they've meant to our program, but you cherish the memories we made together for the same reason. It’s a bit of a unique situation this year, as well. Most of those guys are transfers, either JUCO or otherwise, so in a way it almost feels like they’re leaving before we even got to know them. And yet in spite of that they’ll be a part of our program forever. Every last one of them wore the Old Gold and Blue the right way, and every last one of them deserves a proper send off. Once a Mountaineer, ALWAYS a Mountaineer.
As for the game, this feels like one where if we can jump on them early we might be able to roll to a W. Texas isn't a team that's built to come from behind and the weather doesn't look like it's going to be conducive to that kind of thing anyways. If the Dawgs can come out like they have the last three weeks and get us an early turnover or two I think we’ll take care of business.
West Virginia 31 Texas 20