West Virginia has been somewhat of a mystery this season — the Mountaineers were anticipated by some to be in a rebuilding year, but thanks to the elite arm of Will Grier and a better than expected defense, the Mountaineers are top 25 team.
WVU has shown some vulnerability this year, narrowly defeating Baylor 38-36 and nearly falling to Kansas State 28-23 last weekend after not putting up any points in the second half.
There's a lot to learn about this West Virginia team, and we at Burnt Orange Nation wanted to know more. So, we had a Q&A with Andrew Facemire, a contributor at West Virginia SB Nation blog Smoking Musket who also freelances with ESPN, Fox, and CBS as a statistician.
Below is our conversation in which we discuss the identity of this WVU team, the defense, and Andrew's prediction for Saturday's game.
Jack Keyes, BON: The Mountaineers have been a tad up-and-down this season, but are ranked in both major polls and standing at a solid 7-3. How do you feel about how the season has gone thus far and do you feel like you have an understanding of the identity of this team yet?
Andrew Facemire, Smoking Musket: Given how much we lost on defense, not just this year -- but over the last two seasons, the struggles on defense early on should have been expected. That said, the defense really has been a pleasant surprise, especially the play of some of the younger players in the secondary and on the defensive line. This team has really come together though, it’s not just a one-sided affair. Take the Iowa State and Kansas State games, where the offense was able to get points up early, but the defense picked it up in the second half and carried them across the line.
BON: On offense, WVU is led by one of the nation's best QB/WR tandems in Will Grier and David Sills. What about their style of play makes for a unique challenge to opposing defenses?
Smoking Musket: I really think it’s both of their instincts for the game. Sills experience as a QB means he really knows what Grier is thinking and reacts accordingly. That makes a big difference.
BON: Dana Holgorsen said that Texas has "probably the best defense" the Mountaineers have faced. How do you see the battle between WVU's potent offense and Texas' reliable defense playing out?
Smoking Musket: Texas’ defense is really talented, especially their secondary and defensive line, which might be the best in the conference. Statistically, they’re maybe the third or fourth best defense WVU has faced, but I don’t know if that tells the whole story. Th I have a lot of respect for Texas’ defense. They shut down Oklahoma State, TCU and for most of the game Oklahoma. They also basically ended the Sam Darnold Heisman Hype. That said, I think WVU’s offense is capable of scoring on anyone. To me, the more intriguing battle is Texas’ offense versus the WVU defense.
BON: What would you say are West Virginia's major strengths and weaknesses on defense?
Smoking Musket: The scheme itself is a strength, combined with Toby Gibson’s adaptability. That works in a lot of ways. WVU isn’t able to recruit the sort of athletes up and down the roster that say Texas or even TCU can and that’s fine, the 3-3-5 lets us hide some of those by taking pressure off the corners. It also gives you so many options to disguise pressure. Personnel wise, I think our linebacker core with Al-Rasheed Benton and David Long is great (more on Long coming up). Weakness? Depth pretty much everywhere and inexperience in the secondary. Though I will say that this team has been incredibly resilient with regards to injuries.
BON: The nation's college football fans are aware of guys like Grier and Sills, but who is a difference maker for WVU that may be less under the radar?
Smoking Musket: David Long. The difference on defense when Long came back from an injury was immediate and the guy can just absolutely ball. Against Oklahoma State he had seven TFLS’s, which was a new school record. And the best part is, he’s just a sophomore
BON: What's your biggest fear heading into Saturday's game, and conversely, what are some reasons WVU should be able to pull this one out?
Smoking Musket: WVU has been extremely lucky two weeks in a row. How many times in this league can you go scoreless in the second half and win? WVU’s done that two games in a row. Last week against Kansas State not only did they not score in the second half, but they turned the ball over four times. Normally four turnovers against a Bill Snyder coached team means you likely got housed. So that’s a concern.
On the positive side, this is a team playing with a lot of confidence, on senior day. They have really come together as a team and understand that if they want to keep in race for the Big XII title, a win here is a must.
BON: What's your final score prediction?
Smoking Musket: 31-14, WVU.
BON: Is Morgantown, as Texas LB Breckyn Hager eloquently put, a "bunch of hillbillies drinking moonshine"? And if so, is there anything wrong with that?
Smoking Musket: We take a lot of pride in our Appalachian identity of being passionate, honest, hard-working individuals who have always been forced to do more with less. I think we also take pride when opposing teams say that Morgantown is a difficult place to play. That’s a reflection of that. I honestly don’t take umbrage with calling us hillbillies drinking moonshine. It’s not exactly a secret that almost any tailgate has a supply of ‘Grandma’s Apple Pie’ on-hand. There’s obviously a line, but he didn’t cross it.