West Virginia provides a unique challenge for Texas, bringing the top defense and pass rush in the conference with them to Austin. Texas has struggled at times to protect quarterback Sam Ehlinger, leading to sacks and overthrows in the process.
Burnt Orange Nation: It looks like West Virginia has taken a step toward in year two of the Neal Brown era, matching last year’s win total with four games left to play. What changed from year one to year two for the Mountaineers?
The Smoking Musket: Last year, West Virginia was one of the worst run teams in the nation (130 out of 132) and averaged 73 yards per game on the ground. This year they dedicated themselves to running the ball better and it shows as they average over 173 per game. Most of that has been the improvement of Leddie Brown, a four-star running back from Philadelphia who really has proven that he can do it all. Brown brings a physicality to the run game and allows the ‘Eers to run between the tackles. He can also catch the ball out of the backfield, catching 23 passes already. Brown has steadied the offense and gives the Mountaineers a chance to build an offensive identity. They pound the ball, slow the game down, and take pressure off their quarterback. Speaking of the quarterback, Jarret Doege is better than Austin Kendall and while the deep passing plays haven’t been there for the ‘Eers, the intermediate plays have been. Doege completes 64% of his passes and doesn’t throw interceptions. For a ball-control offense, that is a good way to stay ahead of the chains and come out ahead in the points column.
BON: By most statistical measures, West Virginia is the top defense in the conference. How has WVU managed such a marked improvement this year?
SM: It all comes from the Stills brothers. Having a pair of defensive tackles who can both disrupt passing lanes while simultaneously clogging up running lanes allows the rest of the defense to make plays. Simply put, pressuring young college quarterbacks leads to poor decisions and when you can do that without having to blitz, you tend to be very good. I would argue though that it isn’t so much improvement as it’s not being on the field 100 plays. Last year, the defense was really good and kept West Virginia in games for three quarters before simply succumbing to the pressure of A) having to be perfect and B) being on the field for 90 plays. This year an improved offense keeps the defense off the field. I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least point out that the ‘Eers have played some of the worst offenses in the conference. The best offense they’ve played to date is Texas Tech, at fifth in points per game.
BON: Everybody outside of Morgantown knows the Stills brothers, but who else on the defense should Texas fans have their eyes on defensively for West Virginia?
SM: On the D-Line, watch Akheem Mesidor. He’s only a freshman but he brings the speed rusher from the end position on defense and if you pay too much attention to the Stills brothers, he can disrupt your gameplan. At linebacker, Arizona transfer Tony Fields has been a tackling machine with 53 tackles. He has been all over the field. In the backend, Alonzo Addae and Tykee Smith buoy a secondary that has started to turn defended passes into interceptions. The team has nine interceptions this year after picking off eighjt all of last year.
BON: At least from the outside, Leddie Brown has quietly been one of the best back in the conference, No. 2 behind Breece Hall in most statistical categories. What has been the key to his success on the ground?
SM: An improved offensive line and more consistent play calling and offensive play. The line last year allowed Mountaineer running backs to be hit behind the line of scrimmage far too often. Backs would have to dodge a defender three yards in the backfield which meant a good run might only gain two yards. Now, Brown is able to get to the line and make a cut so he’s meeting defenders in positive territory. Brown also has a tendency to fall forward gaining an extra yard or two at the tackle. The coaches have made a concerted effort to be a one-back team, giving Brown the lion’s share of the carries and Brown has thrived, getting stronger as the game goes on. He’s a violent runner and punishes defenders, so you see him gaining more yards as the game goes on and he wears on defenders. As I said previously, Doege has been complementary, not making mistakes and generally moving the chains. This means that defenses haven’t been able to play just the run because Doege can take advantage of the gaps in the defense at the second level.
BON: What is one matchup that you’re watching Saturday?
SM: Darius Stills vs the interior OL. Stills is the best defender on the Mountaineers and if he can make his presence known, then Sam Ehlinger is going to have a tough day. Sam only completes about 40% of his passes when under pressure. Pressuring and making Ehlinger move but stay in the pocket will give the Mountaineers a chance to ground the Texas offense. If Stills is held in check and Ehlinger is able to sit in the pocket, he completes almost 70% of his passes. That’s a pretty stark difference.
BON: What’s your honest opinion of Take Me Home, Country Roads?
SM: When I first heard it (I grew up in Mississippi and moved to WV when I was 12) I thought it was corny and overblown. OMG a song that mentions West Virginia. I still, at times, feel that way. It’s not that big a deal that the song says the state’s name, but it does grow on you. You hear it in a bar, you stand up and sing. You see other WV fans, you sing the song together. 60,000 fans singing one song, at the top of their voices after a big win, it hits you in all the right places college football should.
BON: What’s your prediction for Saturday?
SM: I’m cautiously optimistic the ‘Eers can keep up but I’m not sure they can do enough. This is a weird rivalry (and I’m gonna say its a rivalry) where both teams do better on the road. In the 8 meetings, both teams are 4-4 and 3-1 on the road. The game is in Austin so that should bode well for the Mountaineers. This seems like strength on strength. Top scoring offense against best scoring defense. Good rush offense versus good rush defense. Texas allows about the same amount of points as WVU scores so it seems like it will be a higher scoring affair. If the game is low scoring, I like the ‘Eers. If WVU needs to score 35 to win, I’m not sure they can. I’m going to say Texas wins, but I’m not betting money on it.
Texas 35 - WVU 31