No two opponents have played more close, contentious football games in the last four years than TCU and WVU. The two newest members of the Big 12 (for now!) have played some of the more memorable games in the conference, coming down to the wire in three of their first four matches, with the visiting team taking each contest save for 2015.
It was a season ago that the Frogs finally broke through against the Mountaineers, dominating the Thursday night contest from the opening snap on their way to a 40-10 victory. More than the game was the reaction of Coach Dana Holgorsen, who at one point was so in awe of Trevone Boykin, he stopped to give the TCU QB a high five.
... and now I’m sad.
But, no sense living in the past: let’s look ahead to the 2016 matchup, where the Mountaineers will try to beat TCU on their home field for the first time in Big 12 history.
Skyler Howard. Skyler Howard. Skyler Howard.
WVU has had some of the best skill position players in the conference over the past four years, churning out NFL-caliber players at an alarming rate. But the guys getting the ball into their playmaker’s hands have less than lived up to their billing, piling up stats but not reaching the lofty numbers of their conference counterparts.
The Eers will turn to Howard once again this fall, after he threw for over 3,100 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 14 picks a season ago. He added another 500 yards on the ground and six more scores, but struggled with his completion percentage, falling short of 55% on the season. He will have plenty of help, as star running back Rushel Shell also returns, after rushing for over 700 yards and eight touchdowns behind Wendell Smallwood last season.
WVU also returns their top two receivers from 2015, Daikiel Shorts and Shelton Gibson. Gibson is a game breaker, averaging 24 yards a catch last season on his way to amassing almost 900 yards and nine scores. Ka’Raun White is also back, and could be a breakout player on O for Holgo, as he averaged over 18 yards a catch in limited duty in 2015.
WVU averaged more than 34 points per game in 2015, and has scored at a 33 point clip in the four years since joining the Big 12. But, while they have piled up the points game by game, there has been a sense of missing opportunities in big moments. Whether or not Skyler Howard can make the big play when the lights are brightest will be the difference maker in 2016.
Welp... if there is a reason WVU hasn’t been able to get to double digit wins in their first four seasons in the Big 12, it’s this side of the ball. Despite having had some all-conference level defensive players, the unit as a whole has been less than effective overall. After surrendering 24 points per game and nearly four yards a carry last season, as well as 240 yards passing on 13+ yards a catch, the WVU D will try and rebuild on the fly around all conference defensive lineman Noble Nwachukwu. Losing two of the better secondary players in the country (Karl Joseph, who missed most of the season due to injury, and KJ Dillon) doesn’t help, as well as most of a very effective linebacking corp. But where they may lack stars, they have depth in spades, and fresh legs could help develop an effective pass rush - one of their most improved areas in 2015.
For a group that thrives on disruption and effectiveness by committee, getting the most out of a veteran group will be key. WVU has struggled over the past several seasons when allowing more than 30 points per game; in the last 25 games that opposing offenses have met that benchmark, the Eers are a paltry 3-22. While the offense should still pour it on, the question remains, can the defense match them with stops?
Oops, this is about WVU’s special teams, not TCU’s ;).
Senior kicker Josh Lambert returns, and with him, stability at the position. Lambert led the team in scoring last year, converting on 21 of 28 field goal attempts and 53 of 54 XPs. Sadly, Nick O’Toole and his glorious facial hair has moved on, and thus, the punting competition will be wide open. Local boy Billy Kinny, a 6’4” redshirt sophomore is probably the favorite to win the job, having averaged 42 yards per punt in high school.
The Mountaineers will have their top returners back this fall, as Gary Jennings, Jovon Durante, and Shelton Gibson will all be back. Only Gibson scored a season ago, as he averaged nearly 33 yards each time he touched the ball on kickoffs. Punt returns weren’t nearly as dynamic, but there’s plenty of speed and athleticism on that team as well.
Dana Holgorson is on the hot seat, no doubt. This could be a make-or-break season for the Red Bull swigging, gloriously maned, joke cracking head coach. A fan and player favorite, Holgo will need to get the best out of a strong offense and rebuilt defense to keep the Mountaineers on track and a winning season in sight.
With an ambitious schedule - WVU opens with Missouri at home and plays a neutral site game against BYU in Maryland - as well as games at Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and Texas, the Eers have an uphill battle to double digit wins. Getting TCU, OU, and Baylor at home helps, and finishing with eight or nine wins isn’t out of the realm of possibility. WVU is generally good for one big upset a season, and a mid-November visit from the Sooners could spell trouble for OU. Thankfully, the Frogs travel to Morgantown early enough that weather may not be the significant factor is has been in their last two visits east.