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Know The Enemy: West Virginia Mountaineers

We heard from our friends at Smoking Musket for the view from the other side of Saturday’s WVU-TCU showdown

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 23 Texas Tech at West Virginia
CJ Donaldson (4) & the Mountaineers are riding high with three straight wins

Through four games of the 2023 season, the TCU Horned Frogs & West Virginia Mountaineers both are riding three-game win-streaks following season opening losses. The two sit with 1-0 records in the Big 12 and will do battle under the lights at Amon G. Carter Stadium on Saturday night looking to remain undefeated in conference play. To get the view from the other sideline, we got with Matt Kirchner of our SB Nation sister-site The Smoking Musket for the inside scoop on what the Mountaineers bring to Fort Worth this weekend

Frogs O’ War: Neal Brown is 3-1 against the Horned Frogs, but below .500 in all other games as West Virginia Head Coach, which had him squarely on the hot seat entering the season. With a 3-1 record to open the 2023 campaign, have the calls for Brown’s ouster quieted or is it still a week-to-week situation?

Smoking Musket: I think that it’s still very much a week to week thing. The path to Brown keeping his job is more clear than it’s been in more than a year, but West Virginia still has to show me more to make me believe that Brown is someone worth keeping in charge of the program for another year.

Right now, I see a team that is still as milquetoast on offense as it has been for the last four years, but playing against teams that are infinitely worse than anyone thought possible. We’ll see how it ramps up as we move on to teams with a pulse, though in an extremely down middle to bottom of the Big 12, anything is possible. Anything from 5-7 to 9-3 wouldn’t surprise me at this point.

FOW: Having allowed just 19 points total in wins over Pitt & Texas Tech, what has the Mountaineers defense done to shut down those offenses? Who are the top defensive players to watch that are most likely to make life difficult for Chandler Morris & the TCU offense on Saturday night?

SM: West Virginia’s front seven is WAY ahead of schedule compared to where I thought they would be going into the year and it’s allowed the secondary to catch up after a rough start to the season against Penn State. Guys like Sean Martin, Fatorma Mulbah, and Tomi Duorjaiye are making big plays on the defensive line and a linebacker group that was looked as a major weakness going into the season has overperformed, led by Lee Kpogba and Trey Lathan.

To me, the secondary is still a question mark even with great performances against Pitt and Tech. I still need to see it against a team with an offensive pulse. A strong performance against TCU would do a lot for me. So far, the biggest names that have flashed on the back end are Minnesota transfer Beanie Bishop at CB and Aubrey Burks at Safety. They’re the definitive leaders of the secondary and have played pretty well–again, against some miserable QB play.

FOW: With opening day starting QB Garrett Greene missing last week with an injury, and still described as questionable ahead of Saturday, Nicco Marchiol stepped in to lead the victory over the Red Raiders and most of the win over Pitt. Who do you expect to take the first snaps in Fort Worth and how do their play styles differ? Or does it not matter as it’ll be the CJ Donaldson show regardless?

SM: Brown will definitely not announce anything until Saturday, but right now all signs are pointing towards Garrett Greene being healthy enough to go. Greene and Marchiol are similar styles as QBs (though Greene is right and Nicco is left handed). Despite that, Greene is way ahead of Marchiol as a passer and I expect Neal Brown to open up the playbook *slightly* more with Greene good to go. West Virginia desperately needs some receivers to step up and get separation though, as that unit has frankly been miserable thus far. Without that, West Virginia’s passing game will continue to be DOA.

FOW: How are West Virginia fans feeling about the New Big 12? With the relatively closer proximity additions of Cincinnati & UCF for this season, but the further westward expansion beginning in 2024, does the league still feel like home? Has it ever?

SM: I’m going to caveat this by saying that I like the Big 12. I enjoy the fanbase interactions and at this point, yes it is home–to an extent. It’s very good to finally be in a league with stability but if you look at the stadium environment for the Backyard Brawl vs even the biggest Big 12 games that WVU has played in the last decade, it’s not the same.

WVU still has to manufacture a difficult schedule to consistently play its biggest rivals and that’s been an issue–the program had to open on the road at a P5 game for three straight years which is just something that shouldn’t happen.

Having two teams in the same time zone will definitely help and WVU does have history with Cincy but I’m definitely holding out hope that within the next five years the Big 12 will be able to make one final push to 20 and bring teams like Pitt, Louisville, Virginia Tech, and a place like Syracuse or UConn into the fold.

FOW: What do you see as West Virginia’s best path to victory over TCU on Saturday night and what is your prediction for how the game will play out?

SM: Limiting possessions and playing smart situational football. WVU is not a team that is going to be able to beat TCU in a track meet. It’s going to need to win the game in the 20s and it will prefer that to be in the low-mid 20s. When WVU does get a drive going, it cannot kill itself with procedural penalties, which has been a Neal Brown hallmark from 2019-2022 that has not really shown its face yet this season.

I don’t think they’ll be able to win this game on Saturday in a tough night game environment. I’d love to be wrong, and being wrong will make me reassess my opinions on the ceiling of this year’s team dramatically, but I see something like 31-17 TCU.

Thanks to Matt for taking the time to discuss the Mountaineers and this matchup with TCU ahead of the Saturday night showdown. Make sure to check out The Smoking Musket for all their coverage of West Virginia and the game this week; follow them on Twitter: @smokingmusket