Anytime you invite a bunch of Mountaineers to your party, you can be assured you are in for a good time. With a reputation for being some of the best hosts in the Big 12, WVU has been a welcome addition to the conference, both on and off the field. And the Frogs have enjoyed success at Milan Puskar Stadium; winning an OT thriller in the first meeting back in 2012, mostly because of this:
... and crushing the souls and spirits of a cold, yet electric crowd in the same venue, with Game Day in town last year, on this:
There was a hiccup in 2013, as WVU traveled to Fort Worth and outlasted the Frogs in OT in a game where Trevone Boykin was the leading receiver for TCU. So, needless to say, there is some crazy history between these newly friendly foes.
West Virginia in 2014:
Well, this happened:
Other than the stunning, penalty-filled upset over BU, the Mountaineers had a, err, rocky season. After opening the season by playing #2 Alabama close on a neutral (ish) field, WVU rattled off an easy win over Towson and a thriller over Maryland, before opening Big 12 play with a loss to Oklahoma. A four game win streak, including the aforementioned victory over Baylor, was snapped by the Frogs, and WVU would never quite recover from the last second heartbreak, dropping three of their last four games. The 7-6 record is actually a little surprising when you look at the stats; the Eers outscored opponents 33.5 to 27.6 on the season, and outgained them by 1300 yards on the season. They racked up 500 yards of offense per game on the strength of a receiving corps led by first-round draft pick Kevin White, who averaged more than 100 ypg on his own to go along with his ten touchdowns on the season. They had three running backs gain over 450 yards, and six average more than four yards per carry. Oh, and don't forget about Mario Alford and his 950 receiving yards and 11 scores opposite White on the outside.
Those offensive numbers are impressive, and they had to be - because when you get to the other side of the ball, things were a little less positive. The WVU defense wasn't atrocious, but it wasn't good - opponents scored in the red zone 85% of the time, 60% of which led to seven points. They surrendered 400 yards per game, in addition to managing only 20 sacks and two fumble recoveries on the year. They aren't without their share of stars though; linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski and safety Karl Joseph are both really good players - possibly the best at their respective positions in the conference. Kwiatkoski led the team with over 100 tackles in 2014, and Joseph wasn't far behind with 92. Both return for their senior season in 2015.
Clint Trickett was at the helm for the majority of the season, before concussion issues forced his early retirement, giving way to juco transfer Skyler Howard. Howard completed only 50% of his passes but did not throw an interception in his 100 attempts. He passed for just over 200 yards a game and eight TDs in four appearances and two starts down the stretch.
West Virginia in 2015
Would you believe that WVU might win games with their defense this year? With Trickett, White, and Alford all gone to graduation, the WVU offense will look a lot different in 2015. Dana Holgorsen, who is one of the OGs of Air Raid, has never had a problem finding or developing skill players, and with a stable of successful running backs returning - led by juniors Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood - the offense should compete at a competitive clip. But it will likely be the defense that pushes the 2015 version of the Mountaineers over the edge - led by probable all-conference selections Joseph and Kwiatkoski - a savvy, veteran group of hard hitting, angry football players. CB Daryl Worley is also back - along with his three INTs, four PBUs, and 4.5 TFLs. While the pass rush hasn't been a strength of the Eers, and may not be again this season, the back end is so solid and could border on elite. With senior leadership, outstanding athleticism, and a mean streak befitting the backcountry roads of West Virginia, this group is not only the best or one of the best secondaries in the Big 12, it is probably a top ten unit in the country. And if a couple of juco transfers (Larry Jefferson and Xavier Pegues) and Jared Barber in his return from injury can play to their potential, the pass rush could be enough to allow the back end to wreak some serious havoc to the pass happy Big 12.
All that defense is great and all, but Dana wants to score. And he has a handful of new weapons at his disposal as he looks to replace one of the most productive and dangerous wide-out duos in college football. The running game, as previously mentioned, will be strong; in addition to Shell and Smallwood, redshirt freshman Dontae Thomas-Williams, a four star recruit, combines to make this a pretty impressive group. The o-line loses their two best players, a pair of guards, but has 47 starts among returners and adds a former blue chipper in Michigan transfer Kyle Bosch. They will be good, and with Howard's ability to buy time in the pocket and make plays with his legs, good may be good enough. But Howard's scrambling and running ability won't be enough to win games - he is going to have to simply complete more of his passes and play more efficiently behind center. If Howard can get in to the 60+ completion percentage range, and avoid turning it over (something he showed last year), the offense will give the D plenty to work with.
All told, you would expect WVU to take a step back this season, with all that they lost of offense. The Eers will open with two winnable games against lesser opponents at home and will then face the ever-improving Terps at Milan-Puskar in week three. WVU has one of the most brutal road stretches in the conference - in October they will be at OU, home for Okie State, at Baylor, and then at TCU. The Frogs getting WVU at the end of that gauntlet bodes well for TCU - the Thursday night atmosphere should also be a factor. While I think the Mountaineers might actually be better this season when it's all said and done, they won't have gotten there by October 29th. After three impossibly close games and trading heartbreak at home, this is the year the road team falters, as the Frogs run away with things late for a 48-31 win.