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PREVIEW: West Virginia finds itself at a crossroads as it travels to play Baylor

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A confounding loss to Texas Tech has the Mountaineers searching for answers - will they find any in Waco?

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NCAA Football: Texas Tech at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

OPENING THOUGHTS

It's hard to remember a more deflating loss. The flat start, the comeback, and ultimately, the let down, all against an extremely average team playing without a handful of its most important players - it's depressing trying to find the words even now. So let's not.

As far as the Climb goes, I still trust it. Would it be easier if the Climb led straight to the mountaintop? Obviously, but even Alex Honnold had to go sideways or down at certain points on his way up El Capitan. Climbing implies making progress, and we have seen real, tangible progress throughout the first few years of Neal Brown, especially off the field. The facility improvements and social media presence are nothing short of fantastic, and you have to look no further than our last few recruiting classes to see that those investments are paying dividends.

However, the on-field product has to start following suit again soon. We have to be better. It's as simple as that. Better with our execution, better with our game management, better with everything. I still think this team is more than capable of turning a corner a making a run to 7 or 8 wins, but we need to start turning that corner on Saturday.

WHEN/WHERE

Date: October 9th, 2021

Kickoff: 12:00PM ET

Where: McLane Stadium - Waco, TX

Tickets: General Public

WATCH/LISTEN

Channel: FS1

Online Streaming: FoxSports app with a valid cable OR FoxSports subscription

Cord Cutters: Mountaineer fans can catch all the action on fuboTV. fuboTV is an over-the-top streaming service that carries all the major networks, including CBS, NBC, FOX, and now....the ESPN Disney networks! It also carries ABC, CBS Sports Network, FS1, SEC Network, and more. fuboTV comes with a cloud DVR feature, so you can record the game and watch it later.

Sign up for a free seven day trial of fuboTV, and get 15% off the base family plan, by following THIS LINK.

Radio: Mountaineer Sports Network from IMG (Radio Affiliates) | SiriusXM Channel 200 | WVU Gameday App (Apple | Android)

Radio Announcers: Tony Caridi (PBP), Dwight Wallace (analyst), and Jed Drenning (sideline)

Reminder: It is against site policy to post links to illegal streams in the comments.

DEGENERATES UNITE (as of Monday, 10/4)

The Mountaineers open as 3-point underdogs in Waco with the O/U set at 44.5. Both of those numbers feel just about right based on the relative quality of offenses and defenses.

WEATHER FORECAST (as of Monday, 10/4)

Looks like it's gonna be a hot one. The forecast is calling for lots of sun and a high of 93, with the temperature in the lower 80s at kickoff and rising throughout the day.

THE ENEMY

Where are they from? Baylor University is a private research institution in Waco, TX. Founded by Baptist pioneers in 1845, it is the longest continuously operating university in Texas.

All-time series record: 6-3. The Mountaineers hold an advantage on the strength of a three-game run from 2016-2018 that featured the series' only road win in that 2017 contest in Waco.

Last game: Last year’s game was an ugly one that went to overtime before ultimately ending in a 27-21 West Virginia victory. Stop me if you've heard this before, but it was four Mountaineer turnovers that kept the Bears in the game despite being outgained by almost 100 yards.

Head coach: Dave Aranda (2nd season, 6-8). Aranda's first season in Waco featured some offensive growing pains, but defense immediately showed the signs of growth you'd expect based on the quality of the units he engineered at LSU. The fact that Aranda handed the keys to the offense to Jeff Grimes from BYU over the offseason would seem to indicate a solid level of self-awareness.

2021 record: 4-1. Baylor ran out to a 4-0 start but has really crashed back to Earth over its last six quarters or so. Their first half against Iowa State was good enough that they were able to hang on and steal a win, but they never led last weekend in Stillwater. It's worth noting that the Bears have already played the three easiest games on the schedule, so it'll be interesting to see how things shake out from here.

NUMBERS THAT MAY INTEREST YOU

17 - The number of offensive points that Baylor has scored in six quarters since halftime of the Iowa State game. Clearly the Cyclones and Cowboys figured something out with them, so hopefully we're able to leverage whatever it is and keep the Bears on lockdown.

1.2 - Sacks per game for Baylor's defense, good for 9th in the Big 12 and 118th nationally. The Bears are generally very good on that side of the ball, but hopefully this means that the pressure-averse Doege will at least have a little bit of time to find receivers this week.

57% - Baylor's offense has been 57% run over their last two games and is 62% run on the season. A lot of that is obviously situational but they clearly want to run the football, which means we're going to have to stop it to stop them.

5 - The number of Baylor offensive linemen in the top 20 of the Big 12 in PFF’s blocking grade, headlined by Khalil Keith’s 99.9 (!!!). You have to consider quality of competition here, but on paper this should be the best unit we’ve played yet and a big test for our defensive front.

KEYS TO THE GAME

ATTACK THE GAME ON BOTH SIDES OF THE BALL

It would be great if we were able to consistently play 60 minutes of measured, clean, efficient football. Alas, that just hasn't been us this year. In times like these, one of the things you can (have to?) do to offset poor execution is play aggressively and make splash plays.

Offensively this means safeties off for 60 minutes - playing with tempo, attacking vertically, using motion to manufacture touches and favorable matchups for Winston Wright, and staying creative.

Defensively it means creating havoc - getting into the backfield and after the quarterback, attacking the line of scrimmage from the second level, and attacking the football when it's in the air.

Do that and at the very least we'll know we aren't walking off the field with any bullets left in the chamber, which I think a lot of fans would see that as a step in the right direction whether we win or lose.

SEIZE MOMENTUM

In response to a post-game mailbag question, 247's Chris Anderson tallied up the results of our drives following splash plays by our defense or special teams (turnovers, 4th down stops, missed field goals, etc). The results were, uh, not great. And by not great I mean terrible. Five of those seven possessions were three-and-outs, one lasted four plays before a punt, and the other featured literally the worst first down interception I've ever seen against Maryland. This is bad for a couple obvious reasons. The first is that it's literally throwing away free possessions, and that's something you can't afford to do when you're ranked 95th nationally in scoring. The second though is the impact it has on our defense. Instead of enjoying a well-deserved rest and spending a few minutes watching the seeds of their labors bear fruit, they have to scramble to find their helmets and get back onto the field, now playing tired and often in terrible situations. We can't keep wasting these opportunities and hoping that the defense will bail us out. It's very obviously not sustainable.

WIN THE MARGINS

This staff has repeatedly stressed the importance of margins. We have to win the margins, our margins are really small, and so on and so forth. And through five games they're not wrong. Margins are what’s between this team and what... 4-1? 5-0? We've certainly played well enough at points in every game to have won, well, every game, and considering how small the gap is between us and most of the teams we play the rest of the way, margins are likely going to continue to define our season.

Let's save ourselves a few sections here and just lump everything together. Winning field position, winning turnovers, winning explosive plays, leaving red zone trips with 7s instead of 3s, procedural penalties, managing the clock, managing our personnel - we don’t have to check every box every week, but boy would it help our cause if we could start tipping the scales a bit more in our favor.

HOW AFRAID SHOULD WE BE?

7 out of 10. Baylor is at worst a decent football team. They're good on defense and at the very least know who they are on offense, and that right there is already enough to beat a decent team that doesn’t know what it wants to be, which is what we’ve looked like far too often this season.

PREDICTION

It's hard to say with any level of certainty whether Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde is traveling to Waco this weekend. The team we were in the third quarter last weekend is good enough to win this game by a few scores, but the team we were in the first half is bad enough to lose it by just as many.

At the very least I think we bounce back and start the game with some juice. Where we go from there depends on how much soul searching this team and this staff does between now and then. Are we willing to stay aggressive with our play calling for 60 minutes, or are we going be content taking the air out of the ball on the off-chance that we find ourselves with a 10-14 point lead? Are we able to execute when we're in the red zone, or are we going to continue missing gimme touchdowns and moving ourselves backwards with procedural BS? Are we able to get plays in and make subs without killing our momentum and burning timeouts? And if all else fails, are we willing to let the more dynamic Garrett Greene make and learn from the same mistakes that our topped-out 5th year senior is making anyways?

Overall, I'm expecting this to be another white-knuckler. How about a little 4th quarter red zone touchdown for the win? Baby steps, lads. Baby steps.

West Virginia 27-23 Baylor