The Big 12 Showdown of the Century (of the week) is in Morgantown this week, as the two hottest teams in the Big 12 square off in Morgantown to decide who will be the biggest threat to Kansas State in the next week or two. This is essentially an elimination game for the Big 12 championship, so the Frogs need to bring their a game against the Mountaineers- but what do we actually know about West Virginia other than that they were the team that beat Baylor? I turned to Matt Kirchner, Q&A specialist of the excellent West Virginia blog The Smoking Musket for answers, and happily enough, he answered before I needed to get on the plane back to Australia.
Hawk: When Alabama opened the season with a close game against West Virginia (who had been 4-8 the year before) the national consensus seemed to be "Wow, Alabama must really be down this year!", rather than giving West Virginia much credit. Did you realize at that point it was going to be a much improved Mountaineer team, or if not, when did it hit you?
Matt: I had a really good feeling after the Alabama game. Now, that it wasn't a "we're about to go out here and win the Big 12" feeling, but I knew after that game that we were going to outplay the predictions and go to a bowl. I really felt we had a chance to be good after that Maryland game. It doesn't look great on paper, but Maryland is always a barometer game for West Virginia. Showing that we could battle and get a win on the road, even after blowing a lead really resonated with me.
Hawk: The Mountaineer quarterback situation was a bit rough last year, with injuries and quite a bit of shuffling- Now Clint Trickett is the man, and he's performing at a very high level this year. What's the biggest change in his play this year compared to last year?
Matt: Clint Trickett didn't get in until fall camp last year and didn't have nearly enough time to learn Holgorsen's system. Being thrown into that and being injured on top of having a patchwork offense of skill players who had never played together really hurt. A year to grow into the offense with those skill players--as well as being healthy, of course--have resulted in the stellar play we've seen this season.
Hawk: Kevin White is scary, and will give Patterson a ton of headaches this week I'm sure, but who are the other wide receiver folks who will be benefiting from any extra attention the Frogs throw his way? Can WVU win if White has a bad day?
Matt: Well, WVU did win 34-10 last week with White having 3 catches for 27 yards (though he did still snag a touchdown). Mario Alford has been a star as well, which has been lost a bit in White's Biletnikoff-worth campaign. Our two other receiving options after that are going to be Dakiel Shorts (a pretty good young possession receiver) and Jordan Thompson ( who has developed into a decent slot option after three years of being a Spring Game Hero). We'll also throw to our backs a good bit, with Wendell Smallwood being the better receiving back out of our RB corps.
Hawk: The biggest change this year seems to be West Virginia's defense, which is finally performing at a level high enough to compete in the Big 12 (you guys are the anti-us in so many ways). What's the difference between this year's defense and last year's?
Matt: Successful blitzing. Oh my god, so much successful blitzing. I (and a lot of people) had a ton of doubt about Tony Gibson as Defensive Coordinator. He presided over some pretty bad secondaries for Rich Rodriguez at both WVU and Michigan. He is an outstanding recruiter, specifically in Western Pennsylvania, but his on field resume was unspectacular, at best.
He's been outstanding so far this time around. We still have some issues forcing turnovers (though two interceptions against Ok. State helps), but after doing some front seven shuffling, we've been able to get to the Quarterback and leave our defensive backs on islands without turning the defense into a seven story tall dumpster fire. It's been fun.
Hawk: I know it's a big game week and I should have oodles of more pressing questions, but what's on my mind right now is something else. What do you think of the officiating in the Big 12 so far this year? Were things better officiating wise in the Big East?
Matt: It's been bad. Though, I tend to think that all officiating is bad in general, because it's a really really really hard job so it's hard to pin any win or loss entirely on officiating. I think that every conference's fans think their league has the worst refs ever, so being in two conferences recently is good to put everything in perspective. Just think of it this way: I was super excited to get away from the gawd awful blind Big East refs and into the loving embrace of the magical, all-knowing Big 12 officials. See, perspective.
Hawk: Back to business. Who do you like on Saturday, and how do you see the rest of the season working out for the Mountaineers?
Matt: I'm not the biggest guy on predictions, but WVU is 6-0 in games where I've picked them and 0-2 in the games I picked against them. So, West Virginia is going to win on Saturday. Seriously though, this is a really tough one to pick. I'm terrified of mobile QBs against this D, so Boykin might win the Heisman in this game. These are two extremely confident teams, and I know it's a cop out, but I don't think I've ever been less sure about what's going to happen in a football game. Though, on our side, we've actually been a better team during home day games than night games recently, so thanks ABC.
I'd love to say that the rest of the season is going to be an amazing run to 10-2, a Big 12 title, and a shocking berth in the the inaugural playoff because of #TeamChaos. I doubt that happens, as awesome as it would be. A respectable 8-4 or 9-3 with a good bowl game is more probable and this season is a rousing success either way.
Though I can totally see us at 9-2 and losing on the road to Iowa State because WVU.
Our thanks to Matt and be sure to head over to The Smoking Musket for West Virginia's coverage of the game, as well as my answers to his questions!