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Previewing the Mountaineers: What makes Dana and WVU Tick?

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Is Holgo’s offense good enough to make up for a struggling defense against a solid TCU team?

NCAA Football: East Carolina at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Not much was expected out of the Mountaineers this fall, what with the graduation of their QB, several dynamic playmakers on offense and defense, and a conference that was supposed to be winnable only if your school resided in the state of Oklahoma. But Dana Holgorsen has a way of making chicken salad out of chicken s*!t, and when you give him something a little better than that to work with, the results can be downright magical.

The WVU roster is filled with talented athletes, speed at nearly every position, and smart football players that know their roles and execute them well. An offensive mastermind, Dana has found quite possibly the best conductor he’s had at QB in his seven years in Morgantown, with the insertion of Florida transfer Will Grier, fresh off a suspension in the Sunshine State for PEDs. But it’s not just the QB Gary Patterson and the TCU defense have to worry about - there are plenty of dangerous guys across the offense, as tends to be the case with a Holgo team. The Eers also have a solid defense (mostly) and special returners. Let’s dive in.

OFFENSE:

Grier himself is an interesting cat - he holds nearly every significant high school passing record in North Carolina, including yards in a game, passing touchdowns in a season, and career touchdowns. He was a Parade All-American and Mr. Football USA, and chose Florida as the nation’s #2 dual-threat quarterback and a four star recruit.

Grier redshirted his first year on campus after losing the backup QB job to Treon Harris. As a RS freshman in 2015, he had won the starting job by the second game of the season - bursting onto the scene with an incredible performance over Ole Miss, one in which he passed for four touchdowns - IN THE FIRST HALF. But by October he was sideline once again though, having tested positive for PEDs, that he claimed came from an over-the-counter substance. Rather than sit a year, he left the school, sat all of 2016 in Morgantown, and earning the starting job as a redshirt junior for this fall. Grier is married and has a child, making his life a little different than most collegiate players outside of Provo, and his maturity off the field has carried to his play on it.

Joining Grier in the backfield is running back Justin Crawford, who has improved from last year’s eye-popping numbers and is now averaging over 110 yards per game and 7.4 per carry. With speed to burn, an array of shifty moves, and plenty of power, Crawford is a do-it-all back who has gone over 100 yards in each of the Mountaineers first four games. The juco transfer is another older, wiser player who is also married and has two kids. Wonder if he and Grier do playdates together?

As per usual, the Mountaineers have a bevy of talented pass-catchers, led by Gary Jennings and David Sills, V. Both are juniors, go over 6’ tall, and average over 15 yards per play and at or over 100 yards per game. Sills leads the team with seven scores already. The only other receiver with double-digits catches so far is Ka’raun White, brother of the legendary Kevin. Ka’raun has a pair of scores and goes over 12 yards per catch, and while he isn’t quite the game breaker of his older brother, he’s a talent in his own right.

The Eers are averaging nearly 49 points per game, have scored 56 or more in three straight (after an opening weekend 24 spot against Va Tech), and put up nearly 600 yards per contest. Grier is completing 65% of his passes, leading WVU to an efficient offensive output and 7.4 yards per play. It helps that they’ve been solid in the trenches, as well. Despite high turnover to graduation, the WVU offensive line has been really good so far this season, even though the depth was tested early with a key injury at guard. They’ve allowed just five sacks through the first four games, and have the Mountaineers averaging over five yards per carry as a team, but will face by far their biggest challenge to this point in a TCU defensive line that has racked up 11 sacks, 30 TFLs, and 11 hurries through their first four games.

But, with Jake Spavital calling the plays, reuniting the young coordinator with Holgo, the Eer offense is as good as ever.

DEFENSE:

As good as the Mountaineer offense is, the defense is... well, less so. Normally an opportunistic and ball-hawking unit, the Eers haven’t quite found their groove through the first third of the year, managing just five sacks and five interceptions so far. While the WVU unit as a whole has never been known as a top defense statistically, they have produced some top talent through the years, especially in the secondary. That could still be the case in 2017, but there haven’t been many standout candidates early.

Leading tackler Al-Rasheed Benton, a 240 pound linebacker, is the likeliest candidate. With 24 tackles, a sack, and a pick, Benton is all over the field for WVU. Corner Mike Daniels has been good in coverage as well, with 16 tackles, an INT, and 4 PBUs. Kyzir White, yes, he’s related as well, leads the team with two interceptions as a safety.

Allowing 25.25 points and 450 yards per game, the Eers are near the bottom of the Power Five in most major defensive categories, especially run defense, where they rank 114th overall for surrendering 226 yards per contest on 5.3 yards per attempt. But, they are strong in one area that has been an offensive strength for TCU - third down conversion percentage. That will be a fascinating matchup to watch: WVU’s 69% (nice) stoppage rate up against TCU’s 63% success rate - a statistic that leads the country in that category. For comparison’s sake, the Eers convert on just over 40% of their chances.

I’m fascinated to see how Cumbie and Luper choose to attack on this side of the ball; against Oklahoma State, they had the Pokes on their heels early by coming out with a high-tempo passing attack that surprised the Mullet and his team, before slowing things down once they took control and bleeding the clock to keep an opposing high-powered O off the field. But, with a run defense as bad as the Eers, do they instead choose to attack with the ground game from the opening snap and dare them to stop it?

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Remember this:

Or this one:

*** raise your hand if you miss Jaden Oberkrom with all your heart ***

Special Teams has been a huge part of this rivalry through its first five years of existence, something exacerbated by the fact that three of the five previous contests were one score games, including Oberkorm’s heroics in Morgantown in 2014.

It appears the Frogs have found their kicker, as Jonathan Song is perfect on the season and hit several clutch kicks in Stillwater. WVU, on the other hand, has some questions to answer, with Mike Molina just 2-4 on the season with a long of 34. Punter Billy Kinney is solid, pinning opponents inside the 20 eight times with an average return of just five yards. How he handles KaVontae Turpin will be a fun matchup to watch. The Eers only have three returns on the season, and a paltry 7.33 average on them. The kick return game is strong though, as Marcus Simms goes 33+ each time he touches it, with a long of 80. Kick it deep, Cole. Lots of explosive athletes on both sides of the ball in this category, and it could certainly be the difference maker Saturday.

PREDICTION:

13 points is way to large a spread for this matchup between two Top 25 teams. The Eers haven’t really been tested since the opening weekend of the season, when they laid an egg offensively against Virginia Tech. After hearing about how bad their defense is for two weeks, they should have an inspired effort on the big stage, and I expect them to have made some adjustments to improve that facet of their game. Offensively, they present a difficult challenge for the TCU secondary, as Grier can really sling it and throws a beautiful deep ball. It’s not all that different than the game in Stillwater, other than this time it’s the Eers coming to town with their backs against the wall.

If we are to truly believe in the 2017 Horned Frogs, this is the game that shows us why. It’s one thing to win a big game on the big stage as an underdog, it’s something entirely different to keep winning. And that’s what TCU needs to do Saturday.

I think Gary Patterson has his team ready, and though they’ll take some punches, they’ll stand tall in the end. Give me TCU by a 45-38 margin in a hard-fought, highly entertaining game.

Go Frogs.