In the fourth year of the Tom Herman era with the Texas Longhorns, competing with and often beating highly-ranked opponents is no longer a surprise. Neither is playing down to the level of the competition and losing winnable games — according to ESPN, the early October loss to the TCU Horned Frogs marked sixth time under Herman that a ranked Longhorns team lost to an unranked opponent.
No other FBS program has suffered such significant struggles in that area over that same stretch.
So Saturday’s game against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium looks less like a game that Texas is capable of winning comfortably and more like the type of game that has constantly resulted in disappointment for Herman and the Horns.
Another trend provides cause for caution, too — West Virginia is now 4-1 in Austin in the all-time series. In fact, the Longhorns haven’t topped the Mountaineers on the Forty Acres since 2014, when former head coach Charlie Strong upset a ranked West Virginia team in a 33-16 win.
Now in the second year under head coach Neal Brown, the Mountaineers are coming off arguably the best performance since Brown took over after intercepting three passes and out-gaining the Wildcats by 260 yards in last week’s upset of Kansas State in Morgantown.
“This is going to be a formidable challenge and certainly one that got everybody’s attention in the locker room, and throughout our program, with their big win against Kansas State last week, so we know we’re going to have our hands full,” Herman said on Tuesday.
The biggest challenge provided by West Virginia is a stout defense that has not only survived the offseason dismissal of coordinator Vic Koenning, but truly thrived in the by-committee approach adopted by Brown. SP+ ranks the group No. 23 nationally, but the unadjusted numbers are even more impressive — No. 4 in total defense, No. 10 in pass defense, No. 17 in rush defense, and No. 15 in sacks.
The team’s yards per play against (4.21) ranks as the conference’s best and only the Texas defense has more tackles for loss this season in the Big 12 than the 49 recorded so far by West Virginia.
It all starts up front for the Mountaineers, led by Dante and Darius Stills in the middle. The brothers have combined for 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks with their disruption from the defensive tackle spots. But make no mistake — West Virginia is also getting strong production from Jeffrey Pooler, Jr. and Akheem Mesidor, who have combed for 11.5 tackles for loss. It’s not just the Stills brothers up front.
After shutting down Kansas State breakout freshman sensation Deuce Vaughn as a runner and receiver, this defensive front for West Virginia will provide heavy resistance to a Texas offensive line still struggling for consistency. Overall, the Mountaineers are allowing only 2.95 yards per carry.
Oklahoma State and Texas Tech combined for 482 yards on 80 carries (6.0 ypc) and five touchdowns, but Baylor, Kansas, and Kansas State all had their rush attacks stifled by West Virginia.
Because Casteel can count on his defensive front to control the line of scrimmage and pressure the quarterback without blitzing, he’s been able to drop seven or eight players in coverage to keep opponents from throwing over the defensive backs.
“In my opinion, the key to the game is can we block them consistently? We know they’re going to make plays — they’ve made them against everybody that they’ve played,” Herman said. “Everybody. But if we can make more plays than they do, and if we can be consistent in not turning guys completely loose in the backfield, we have a shot to move the football.”
At the second level, one-time Texas graduate transfer linebacker target Tony Fields II has continued his high-level production from his time at Arizona, leading the team with 53 tackles. Fields also has three quarterback hurries, two passes broken up, and an interception, the third of his career.
With nine interceptions so far this season, West Virginia leads the conference in that category while holding opponents to only 5.7 yards per attempt.
Strong at all three levels, the Mountaineers boast a defense that is at worst the second-best group in the conference. Like Oklahoma State, West Virginia also benefits from a host of third-, fourth-, and fifth-year players, so the early results aren’t a fluke — it’s a group with tremendous experience.
On offense, Bowling Green transfer quarterback Jarrett Doege has provided a significant upgrade over the play of Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall last year. Doege has now thrown for more than 300 yards in each of his last three games and averaged 8.9 yards per attempt against Kansas State. Other than throwing two interceptions against Baylor, Doege has largely avoided mistakes while providing value above a replacement-level game manager.
Doege doesn’t have to press often in part because of West Virginia’s running game, led by Leddie Brown, a junior who has become one of the Big 12’s breakout players this season with 694 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns on 5.51 yards per carry. Behind Brown, Alec Sinkfield is a smaller slasher who ran for 85 yards against Kansas State and is dangerous when he gets into the open field.
Of course, as Herman likes to say, this game will come down to whether Texas can limit mistakes and execute consistently enough to win the game. Thanks to four forced turnovers against Oklahoma State, Herman’s group was able to overcome another mistake-filled game, but the focus is now on the team playing with a sense of urgency throughout.
“We’re surviving right now because of unity — the closeness of this team and its coaching staff,” Herman said. “It’s going to click at some point to where it clicks earlier than later on in in certain games, but again, the common theme is just like I said every week, I mean, this is a team with a new defensive scheme, a new offensive scheme, a bunch of different new special team schemes with no spring practice, no summer, and a truncated training camp, and we’re learning on the fly. We keep getting better.”
The question is whether that improvement will be enough this week to overcome the type of disappointing loss to an unranked opponent that has come to characterize too much of the Herman era.