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Previewing Texas vs West Virginia: Stopping Leddie Brown is key to a Longhorns victory

Can the Longhorns win their third-straight game in Morgantown?

NCAA Football: Iowa State at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

The West Virginia Mountaineers might be the oddest team in the Big 12 this season heading into Saturday’s game in Morgantown against the Texas Longhorns.

Quarterback Jarret Doege leads the conference in passing yards, yet the Mountaineers are fourth in passing yards per game. They’re also dead last in rushing in the conference, averaging 111.1 yards per game.

After knocking off TCU on the road and upsetting Iowa State the following week, head coach Neal Brown’s team has lost two straight to Oklahoma State and Kansas State by a combined 38 points.

They have a top-25 win over Virginia Tech (who just fired their coach) and were possibly a late sack away from knocking off Oklahoma.

Instead, they sit at 4-6 alongside the Longhorns, fighting for bowl eligibility with Saturday presenting a loser leaves town game.

The West Virginia offense is middle of the road statistically, despite the numbers Doege has put up this season. I would say it’s mediocre at best, but they’ll probably end up with 500 yards of total offense come Saturday.

I mentioned the Bowling Green transfer is leading the conference in yards, but only ahead of Jason Bean in QBR (136.5) and yards per attempt (7.6). He’s also only two interceptions shy of tying his career record in a season (12) with 13 touchdown passes this season.

Brown and the Mountaineers run an RPO-based offense, designed for Doege to get the ball out quickly. His best performance of the season came against Iowa State when he threw for 370 yards and averaged 8.0 yards per attempt.

Iowa State allowed Doege to make these throws all games in their zone coverage. They switched to man. Doege still beat them.

All three of his touchdowns passes were 20 yards or more and while the Cyclones shot themselves in the foot, they still gave up 38 points to one of the worst offenses in the conference.

One positive stat for a Texas defense that has struggled in the pass rush category is that Doege is the most sacked quarterback in the conference. He’s been sacked an astounding 25 times this season. Casey Thompson is second with 14 and Hudson Card is not far behind with 10, but that still trails WVU as a team.

Texas somehow isn't the worst in the conference in sacks, but average just 1.6 per game. The Mountaineers allow 2.6 per game. Can the Longhorns defensive front take advantage? Well, they had one total sack against Kansas so, uh, to be determined.

But West Virginia’s problems in the trenches have been a story all-season, much like Texas.

As a whole, the Mountaineers have struggled in the ground game. They average just 3.4 yards per attempt (which somehow isn’t a program low under Neal Brown) with Leddie Brown averaging 4.4 yards per attempt. Brown’s 4.4 yards are the lowest among any Big 12 running backs with over 70 carries this season.

Brown has rushed for over 100 yards just three times this season. West Virginia is 3-0 in those games. The bad news is that Texas has allowed 100 yards or more out of a running back in every game since Texas Tech, including Devin Neal, who rushed for 143 yards last week after entering the game with stats very similar to Brown, if not worse.

Texas’ inability to stop the running game this season has allowed their opponents to develop simple game plans and just wait for the levee to break. But at this point in the season, after losing to Kansas to extend the Longhorns losing streak to five games, their run defense is unfixable.

Pete Kwiatkowski’s scheme and his decision to stick to a two-safety look have been well documented this season. And with senior cornerback Josh Thompson out for the season, Kwiatkowski will have to ask more out of players that may not be able to deliver. Not with this current roster.

In last year’s defensive battle, Doege tossed for 317 yards but as a team, West Virginia finished with 43 rushing yards (1.7 yards per attempt). Texas was able to win 17-13 with neither team scoring in the fourth quarter. For some reason, I don’t envision another low-scoring game happening again Saturday but I also didn’t see Kansas winning last week either.

Chris Ash wisely elected to have Doege try and beat them through the air by taking away their run game. It worked and other Big 12 teams have done the same thing this season. We’ll let Doege have his yards, but we won’t let you dominate us in the ground game.

Any outcome that ends in a Texas victory will be decided by at least one of these things — turnovers and stopping the run game. If Kansas turns the ball over just once last week, it might be a different week. West Virginia is dead last in the conference in turnover margin (-7) and 117th nationally.

We know that in all likelihood Texas won’t stop the run game, but if they can win the turnover battle and build a big enough lead, they could sneak out of Morgantown with a victory.

Similar to their offense, West Virginia’s defense is average statistically this season. They allow just under six yards per play (76th in the nation) and 2.28 points per drive (72nd).

They have 22 sacks this season, which is 66th in the nation, but are top-10 in tackles for loss. A big part of that is their disruptive three-man down lineman along with their hybrid linebacker/pass rusher “bandit” position. Over half their sacks this season have come from Taijh Alston, Akheem Mesidor, and Dante Stills.

They allow 3.9 yards per rush and it helps to have a playmaker at the second level like middle linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo.

Chandler-Semedo is second in the Big 12 in both tackles and solo tackles, with 81 total and 60 solo.

And despite their struggles this season, they’ve given up only 100 yards to a rusher twice this season — their season-opening loss to Maryland and last week to the Wildcats. Their 34-17 defeat to Kansas State was a little bit closer than the score indicates, as West Virginia allowed the Wildcats to block a punt for a touchdown and they also turned the ball over three times.

Speaking of turnovers, this WVU defense has only forced nine all season, dead last in the conference. Brown’s nickel defense has experience in the secondary with two fifth-year seniors and a fourth-year junior, but is prone to giving up big plays.

They’ve allowed eight plays over 50 yards and five plays over 60 yards. That may not seem a lot but not even Texas has given up that many. The loss of sophomore running back Bijan Robinson hurts, but running back Jordan Whittington returning will help out the offense in terms of creating explosive plays. The majority of the big plays allowed by this WVU defense have come through the air with four passing plays of 60-69 yards occurring.

Iowa State was able to score on a 70-yard touchdown run and a 68-yard touchdown pass, something Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian needs to take advantage of with an untrustworthy defense. Who knows how healthy junior quarterback Casey Thompson’s thumb is, but it felt good enough to throw for six touchdowns against Kansas. It might take another effort like that on Saturday on a cold and miserable morning that won’t do Texas any favors.

I still believe that these conference games are more about Texas than their opponent but playing in Morgantown, at 11 a.m. Central, following a loss to Kansas, is tough to get your hopes up for.

Right now, the temperature at kickoff is expected to be 44 degrees and cloudy. Texas will be missing a handful of key players and the lack of effort is concerning. This is a game that would worry me in the middle of a five-game winning streak, much less a five-game losing streak.

If Texas wants to pull off the upset (my god this is where we’re at?), the defense will have to force turnovers and get some help on special teams. Kansas State did both of those and were able to win despite finishing with fewer total yards than West Virginia.

Offensively, can Texas move the ball without Bijan Robinson? And defensively, can they slow the running game down just enough?

The Mountaineers are a 2.5-point favorite at DraftKings. Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details.