Gameday: Thursday, October 25, 2018, 7:00 PM Fox Sports 1
Location: Mountaineer Field at Milan-Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, WV
Opponent: Baylor Bears
Predicted Season: 6-6, Offense - 38th ; Defense - 63rd
Streak: West Virginia has won the last two
Since entering the Big 12, Baylor and West Virginia have staged some epic offensive showcases. The very first Big 12 games the Mountaineers played was the 70-63 game against Baylor. Then came the 73-42 debacle, then the 41-27 upset in 2014 followed by the 62-38 game. For the first four games, offense was the name of the game.
2016 was West Virginia sleepwalking through their season finale and finding out Baylor was not going to roll over. Last season, West Virginia jumped out to a commanding lead only to be surprised by a quarterback change before holding onto a much closer than necessary victory.
Matt Rhule took over an impossible scenario last year after the ouster of former head coach Art Briles following a mega sexual assault scandal at the private christian university. Rhule earned himself a mea culpa as his team tanked its way to 1-11 with its only win being over Big 12 doormat Kansas.
With 4 seconds left in the third quarter against the West Virginia Mountaineer, Matt Rhule changed course at Baylor. He inserted freshman quarterback Charlie Brewer down 38-13 and elimination from bowl season. He had 15 minutes and 4 seconds to change that.
Brewer almost did. The final score in that game was 38-36 as the Mountaineers were caught flat footed watching Brewer pass and run and keep the Bears excited. Brewer finished the game 8 of 13 for 109 yards and 2 TD while rushing 10 times for 48 yards. Those numbers don’t sound like a lot but remember that was one quarters worth of effort.
Brewer would go on to throw 1400 more yards and 9 more touchdowns in his next 5 games. Brewer threw for 315 against Kansas, 417 against Texas Tech and 301 against TCU. Now Brewer returns as a sophomore and a full offseason knowing he is the starter.
Brewer will have a compliment of characters to throw the ball too as junior receiver Denzel Mims, a 1,000 yard, 8 TD receiver in that season, and Chris Platt, who averaged 100 yards a game before a season-ending knee injury cut his 2017 short. The player to watch however, is former Tennessee Volunteer receiver/running back Jalen Hurd, all 6’-4, 230 pounds of him.
Under Art Briles, the Bears played a version of “hyper-efficient offensive chicken”. Their offensive strategy consisted of having multiple talented athletes on the field and then using all 52 yards of the football field width. Receivers would line up outside the numbers and hash marks, making safeties and cornerbacks line up further away from the ball. This then forced a defense to make a choice pre-snap. Are you playing the run with seven men in the box or are you defending the pass? Baylor then attacked you at your weakest, which often was in the run game where you couldn’t account for the running back.
Last year though, Baylor averaged 3.4 yards per carry while rushing for only 1400 yards. NO running back had 100 carries. Sophomore John Lovett led the team last year with 445 yards but 74 came on one rush. Take away that one long rush and Lovett averaged 3.8 yards per carry. If Lovett isn’t the long term answer, then Baylor will have to turn to sophomore Trestan Ebner, redshirt freshmen Dru Dixon and Abram Smith, and true freshman Craig Williams. That is a lot of inexperience in the backfield.
The good news is that Baylor was so bad at defense last year, ranking 111 in S&P+ that they have almost nowhere to go but up. The other good news is that they played so many young players that they just about have to be better. On the defensive line, Baylor has former freshman All-American James Lynch and pairs him with Ira Lewis, who had 5.5 sacks last year.
Behind Lewis and Lynch is mike backer Clay Johnston who had 9 TFL in only 8 games. Will Johnston be able to replace his sidekicks Taylor Young and Eric Ogor? They’ll have to do it with Jordan Williams, a 5’-11” junior or they’ll have to turn to redshirt freshmen.
In the secondary, Baylor was bad, bad, bad and bad. They ranked near the bottom in nearly every passing category. In order to get better athletes in the secondary, Rhule and his staff recruited Derek Thomas, a Temple transfer, who used to play receiver. They also have Blake Lynch, a hybrid WR/RB/CB who they’ve now moved to safety. Despite a host of returning juniors, the secondary didn’t cause a lot of disruption last year with only 3 interceptions last year from the back 5.
Punter Drew Galitz returns after a knee injury ended his season. The situation was so dire that the Bears had to take a fan from the stands to kickoff. Junior Tony Nicholson returns to handle punt return duties after gaining 10 yards per return which isn’t insignificant.
The Mountaineers will be coming off seven consecutive games before they get their bye week. The good news is the game is in Morgantown. The bad news is the Bears also get a bye week before the game. If the Mountaineers are as good as we think, expect a high-energy crowd for a Thursday night game in Morgantown that should help swing the game in favor of the good guys.