Game Week #9: West Virginia Mountaineers Preview

I love posting this picture - Justin K. Aller

West Virginia has regressed badly on offense but improved markedly on defense from last year. We break down what to expect from each unit and how they may perform against TCU.

Our fellow Big 12 newcomer West Virginia is making its first visit to Fort Worth having hit many of the same struggles that the Frogs have this season. A fairly strong defense matched by a fairly incompetent offense that lost too many pieces, leading to many fans questioning the playcalling, what quarterback should be starting and if there need to be shakeups in the coaching tree.

Series At A Glance

First game in 1984
Last game in Fort Worth: N/A
Series is tied 1-1
TCU leads in Morgantown 1-0
West Virginia leads at neutral sites (Bluebonnet Bowl) 1-0
Last year was TCU's first ever victory over the Mountaineers in what has been a very short series so far. We're likely to be seeing a lot more of the Mountaineers in future seasons, but right now we can gloat that they've never beaten us in Morgantown and it's been 29 years since their last victory over TCU. That'll put them in their places for sure.

West Virginia on Offense

With Dana Holgorsen as coordinator, it shouldn't surprise you that West Virginia is very much a spread team. West Virginia takes just about all of their snaps in either the shotgun or the pistol (even on the goal line) and is still primarily an air raid offense- short drops, quick passes for high completion percentage and let the receivers get what they can after the catch to function as a running game, while the running backs mostly end up pass blocking or going out on wheel routes but occasionally find running room due to the pass heavy nature of the offense. At least that's how it's supposed to work in theory.

However, based on the statements I've had from the West Virginia guys I talked to on the Smoking Musket Podcast two days ago this year's Mountaineer offense has had a great deal more in common with the 2013 TCU offense than it had with its 2012 iteration. See if this sounds familiar: a running game that is largely solid that is repeatedly abandoned in favor of a limited and ineffective passing game headed by a replacement quarterback who has had a flash or two but by and large is unimpressive, leading to consternation, fan quarterback controversies and calls for change of playcaller.

An apt description of TCU this season, but also one that suits the Mountaineers as they've progressed through three quarterbacks so far this year- Ford Childress, Clint Trickett and Paul Millard who have all been varying degrees of ineffective at times this season. Clint Trickett was the starter from the upset of Oklahoma State to last week's game against Kansas State and has looked to be the best of a bad bunch, going 15-28 against the Wildcats while his replacement Millard was 4-14 with an interception.

Trickett actually has the worst raw stats of the three, but when you factor in Millard's opener against the bad William and Mary Tribe and Childress' outing against an even worse Georgia State team and you see that all three of them are about the same type of quarterback- about a 50% passer for about six yards per attempt and about a 1:1 TD to interception ratio that will probably get worse against TCU's conference leading secondary.

Much like TCU, West Virginia looks much better on the ground, but the way in which they look better is very different from the Frogs. While TCU's running game has been consistent in churning out positive yardage and Waymon James and B.J. Catalon have churned out regular 5-6 yard per carry averages without the benefit of big plays, West Virginia's running game is an extremely hit and miss affair, with three backs having at least one rush of over 30 yards while TCU has had... none (have I mentioned we're not running the ball enough?). Remove the one big burst (and the sack) from the rushing totals against Oklahoma and West Virginia drops from a beastly 7.0 yards per carry to a much more mortal 4.7 yards per carry, and by and large this holds true for each of West Virginia's games.

Still, inconsistent but spectacular plays on the ground are a better bet to hitch your wagon to than inconsistent and relatively poor results through the air, so it's not surprising that Dana Holgorsen is catching flak for the playcalling. As for the actual players who will be giving TCU's defense its big play black mark on another stellar performance, Dreamius Smith is the most explosive back, while Charles Sims is the most consistent back for the Mountaineers, though both are liable to bust out a big play. The best thing for TCU would be to take an early lead in this one and force West Virginia to have to throw against the TCU secondary, but if TCU was the type of team that could take leads on people... we'd be undefeated (believe it or not, TCU hasn't lost a single game it's led this season. Dang, I made myself sad with facts again).

West Virginia on Defense

People made fun of me when I said that West Virginia's defense played well after the 37-0 shellacking at the hands of the Maryland Terrapins (go Terps) but I think with the exception of the Baylor game (which was a miserable effort on both sides of the ball for the mountain men) that assessment has held true throughout the season so far- West Virginia's strength is the run defense. The Terps were assisted by two interceptions that resulted in a pick 6 and a return to the Mountaineer 6 yard line, but WVU held firm for the majority of the game, especially on the ground. West Virginia has fully transitioned from former coordinator Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 into what is a 3-4 in name that looks a lot more like a familiar looking 4-2-5 against spread teams.

Like TCU's defense, the Mountaineers are generally solid against the run (with an exception for the Oklahoma Sooners) but have been burned by the pass, including in the aforementioned Maryland game a week before the Terps managed to do absolutely nothing against Florida State. This may actually finally be the game where it makes sense to throw the ball downfield early and often, especially with the return of Casey Pachall, so watch as TCU continues to attack the strength of the opposition by running the ball repeatedly with Waymon James(I'm using reverse psychology, shhhhh!).

The West Virginia defensive line is loaded with experience and depth, returning all but one player from last years two deep (and believe it or not, West Virginia was actually pretty decent against the run last year too). West Virginia joins the ranks of Oklahoma State in the ranks of teams who moved their linebacker coach to primary defensive playcaller this year (though unlike the Cowboys, the former guy was simply reassigned to co-coordinator/assistant head coach to save face- something similar to what I expect TCU to do with its co-offensive coordinators this offseason) with Keith Patterson (no relation) taking over the Mountaineer defense.

Frankly it would have been hard not to improve on last year's bend-and-also-break-a-lot secondary, but the Mountaineers have made significant strides this year with those same players that were scorched so often last year. Cornerback Ishmael Banks helped cue the upset of Oklahoma State with a pick 6 and safeties Karl Jospeh and Darwin Cook have been solid as the Mountaineers have had interceptions in almost all of their games (excepting Georgia Southern and a surprisingly efficient passing performance from Kansas State). They still get burned often, but they manage to make the opposition pay for testing them more often, which is all you can reasonably expect in just one year.

I expect TCU will throw deep often to test the West Virginia secondary because our co-offensive coordinators will be so happy to have Casey back they will again totally forget that we even have running backs, though with Casey back and West Virginia's defensive issues that may well be a game plan that works- we'll just have to wait and see.

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