Gameday: Saturday, November 3
Location: Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, Austin, Texas
Opponent: Texas Longhorns
Predicted Season: 7-5, Offense - 53rd ; Defense - 20th
Streak: Texas broke Will Grier’s hand
When Darrel Royal took over as Texas’ head coach in 1957, the Longhorns were accustomed to winning. They had won nearly 68% of the games they had played up to that point. Royal took the Longhorns to another level, winning 77% of his games and three national championships. His successor, Fred Akers, won 73% of his games. From 1957-1986 the Longhorns won basically 3 out of every 4 games they played.
For the next 11 years, the Longhorns struggled through mediocrity, winning well below what they had become used to. In 1998, Mack Brown entered the Longhorns lives and took the team back to the place they felt they belonged. Mack won 76% of his games and will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame one day. He brought Texas a national title in 2006 with Vince Young. Since his retirement in 2013, the Longhorns have continued to recruit well, averaging a top-12 class with four of their last five classes being in the top 10.
At some point, when you recruit that much talent, you have to win. This, like every year, could finally be the year for the Longhorns.
The biggest question around Texas has to be: Will head coach Tom Herman pick a quarterback and stick with him? He has two talented passers but neither seemed to be able to hold onto the job. Shane Buechele is the better passer while Sam Ehlinger performed with more moxie and poise than his freshman status should have shown in games against USC Trojans and Oklahoma State. Still, Ehlinger and Buechele both averaged under 7 yards per attempt and Ehlinger finished under 60% passing on the year.
In a very surprising stat, Ehlinger, all 235 pounds of him, was the leading rusher for the Longhorns last year. Take a breath here because he ran for.....385 yards. If sophomore Daniel Young and his 374 yards aren’t the answer at running back, the Longhorns will need to turn to California Bears transfer Tre Watson, a grad transfer. Watson had 700 yards rushing in 2016 before an ACL tear in Week 2 last year ended his season. Otherwise, it will be another season of asking freshman to contribute sooner than they should.
The receiving corp had 18 touchdowns, as a group last year, the same as David Sills. Collin Johnson’s 765 yard with 2 touchdowns returns as does Lil’Jordan Humphrey, but the rest of the group is lost to space. Chris Warren, with 229 yards, is the third leading returner.
At least on the offensive line, the Longhorns have a lot of experienced players, except those players are “experienced” because the coaches kept switching people in and out. Not a single player started all thirteen games on the line, but nine players started at least one. Five of the nine are back, giving the offensive line coach, the 5th coach in six seasons, a group who should be able to at least generate some positive yards on the ground.
The Longhorns have taken the anti-Big 12 route and decided that they will play tough, fast, hard defense. It means that teams struggled to run the ball against the massive defensive front. In their seven wins, the Longhorns held opponents to less than 5 yards per play and under 16 points. They gave Oklahoma and Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield all they could handle.
The defensive coaches have to be excited that so much of last year’s defense returns. Now they just need to find a way to replace the best player at each position: Malik Jefferson, Deshon Elliot and Poona Ford. Those three players alone accounted for 33.5 negative tackles (TFL + Sacks). They still have some players but someone will need to be a disrupter.
On the line it could be senior Breckyn Hager, a 255 pound senior defensive end who had 4 sacks and knocked down 4 passes to go with his 9 TFL. If senior Chris Nelson wins the nose tackle job, that gives Herman three big seniors on his defensive line to continue making rushing against the Longhorns a bad idea.
In the middle, senior Gary Johnson will look to take on Malik Jefferson’s role. It will be tough because Jefferson was all over the field, evidenced by his 94 tackles. Jefferson simply could find his way to the ball every single play. If Johnson is going to be the leader, he’ll need to make up for those tackles Jefferson seemed to always be in on.
In the secondary could where the Longhorns defense will determine if its ready to take the next step. Kris Boyd and Brandon Jones come back. Boyd broke up 17 passes last year while Jones, a junior, is a former five-star recruit who had 4 TFL last year. If he can live up to his recruiting billing, he’ll be a force, but now’s the time. If Jones and Boyd are able to hold their own, then the influx of freshman talent won’t be asked to take on the high-powered Big 12 offenses. If those two can’t, then it will be a trial-by-fire experience for players like BJ Foster and Caden Sterns.
Thank goodness the Longhorns are done with that punter weapon they employed last year in Michael Dickson. Dickson was solely responsible for flipping the field for Texas. Against Missouri Tigers, in the Texas Bowl, he pinned the Tigers time after time after time. Don’t pay attention to the fact that with 10 minutes left IN THE FIRST QUARTER Tom Herman punted from the Missouri 36.
Dickson is gone. His replacement will likely not be as good. I hope.
Most Mountaineers feel that if Grier wasn’t lost for the year that the Mountaineers could have won the game last year against Texas. This year, in Texas, may be a different animal. This game will be the first of four games that will determine if West Virginia is a contender or pretender. Win this game and you’ve got a lot of momentum going into the final three.