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Texas vs. West Virginia preview: Mountaineers built to replicate offensive gameplans of Roadrunners, Red Raiders

Graham Harrell’s Air Raid-derived offense could execute the same ball-control tactics used by the last two Longhorns opponents.

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Virginia Tech Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Longhorns host the West Virginia Mountaineers on Saturday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium as the Longhorns try to bounce back from last week’s defeat by the Texas Tech Red Raiders in Lubbock.

The 12th all-time meeting between the two programs affords Texas a chance to even the series at 6-6 — the Mountaineers are the only program in the conference with a winning record against the Longhorns. Winning at home against West Virginia has been a difficult task, however, with Texas winning only two of six contests on the Forty Acres.

The Mountaineers enter the game in the midst of what has already been a roller-coaster season. In the opener, West Virginia reprised the Backyard Brawl with Pittsburgh for the first time since 2011 and the Mountaineers played the ranked Panthers to the wire in defeat, albeit aided by the return of Pat Narduzzi’s preferred offensive style — one utterly lacking any ambition whatsoever. Then head coach Neal Brown’s future with the program came under fire following a loss to a Kansas team that, it turns out, is actually good, at least for the moment. Subsequent wins against Towson and Virginia Tech have since cooled Brown’s seat, with the 23-point win over the Hokes in the other rivalry game on the non-conference schedule suggesting the Mountaineers might even be a solid team.


Offense

One of the most impactful decisions of Brown’s tenure in Morgantown was the hire of offensive coordinator Graham Harrell in the offseason, a significant upgrade to the staff that allowed Brown to hand over play-calling duties to the former Texas Tech quarterback.

The addition hasn’t quite been a resounding success through four games with the Mountaineers ranking No. 39 in offensive FEI, but West Virginia is elite in two areas — Harrell’s offense is No. 1 in busted drive rate (drives that gain zero yardage or lose yardage) without a single such drive this season and No. 16 in first-down rate (drives that gain at least one first down). Overall, West Virginia has 114 first downs this season, ranking third nationally behind Minnesota and Texas Tech. The ability to steadily move the football exists in part because the Mountaineers have allowed only five sacks this season and 14 tackles for loss overall, ranking tied for 14th in the latter category. West Virginia is also converting 49.2 percent of their third downs.

Are the alarm bells going off yet for the ability of Harrell’s offense, Air Raid-derived like Texas Tech offensive coordinator Zach Kittley’s attack, to replicate the ball-control gameplans of the last two Texas opponents? Thought so.

Former USC and Georgia triggerman JT Daniels will lead the potential effort to move the ball with the quick passing game. Though Daniels isn’t as mobile as Frank Harris or Donovan Smith, he has largely made sound decisions with two interceptions on 133 pass attempts (1.5 percent INT rate) while completing 64.7 percent of his passes at 7.2 yards per attempt. After the move to Athens didn’t pay off for Daniels, he’s found a home in Morgantown and is providing West Virginia with better quarterback play than the Mountaineers have had since Will Grier graduated.

Fortunately for Texas, West Virginia doesn’t have a tight end with the receiving ability of Baylor Cupp or Mason Tharp, but the Mountaineers do have two big targets on the outside in 6’3, 224-pound Bryce Ford-Wheaton and 6’4, 211-pound Kaden Prather. Ford-Wheaton in particular is an astounding athlete with some significant NFL upside and is on pace to have his best season after inconsistency and shaky quarterback play conspired to keep him from maximizing his potential earlier in his career.

At running back, CJ Donaldson is a 6’2, 240-pound force of nature with a rare combination of speed and physicality — he can run away from linebackers and run over defensive backs, so the Texas front faces a significant challenge in closing running lanes and keeping him from finding seams. Underrecruited and underrated out of Miami, Donaldson is arguably the breakout freshman star in the Big 12, ranking second in the conference in yards per carry among running backs with 50 or more carries at 7.3 and tied for second with six rushing touchdowns.


Defense

The advanced metrics aren’t as high on Jordan Lesley’s defense — FEI ranks it No. 72 nationally and SP+ slots it at No. 59. FEI finds some significant faults with West Virginia’s defense, ranking it No. 100 in defensive drive efficiency (scoring value gained or lost per opponent offensive drive), No. 106 in defensive touchdown rate (percentage of opponent offensive drives that result in a touchdown), and No. 105 in defensive turnover rate (percentage of opponent drives that end with a fumble or an interception).

In comparison to the Texas defense, the last stat stands out, as Lesley’s defense has only forced one interception this season and recovered two fumbles — there just aren’t a lot of playmakers in this group, especially at the linebacker level and in the secondary, affording the Longhorns a chance to win the turnover battle for only the second time this season.

With a background as a defensive line coach, Lesley’s defense is strongest at the point of attack, led by defensive tackle Dante Stills, who has three tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks this season, along with a forced fumble. Quick and sturdy at 6’4, 285 pounds, Still is more disruptive than his stats would suggest, and plays next to 6’3, 310-pounder Jordan Jefferson, who leads the team with 3.5 tackles for loss.

In four games, the Mountaineers have nine sacks, about average nationally, but is strong against the run, as opponents are averaging 3.2 yards per carry this season. Pitt averaged 2.0 yards per carry, Towson averaged 2.6 yards per carry, and Virginia Tech averaged 1.9 yards per carry. In the last two games, West Virginia hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown, either, after giving up seven in the first two contests. Where the Mountaineers really excel in run defense, however, is in avoiding big plays — opponents do have 12 runs of longer than 10 yards, but only one run longer than 20 yards. So creating explosive plays in the running game may be difficult for the Longhorns on Saturday.

Outside of the Kansas game, the pass defense has allowed only two passing touchdowns this season and limited Virginia Tech to 5.5 yards per attempt and a 45.7 completion percentage. Pitt, however, was able to produce 308 passing yards on only 24 attempts (12.8 yards per attempt), and Jalon Daniels threw three passing touchdowns. Texas should be able to find some big plays in the passing game, especially if Quinn Ewers is able to play, but that may be dependent in part on whether Xavier Worthy is available and how healthy he is given the lack of other explosive options at that position.


Special teams

The aptly-named Casey Legg is the place kicker for West Virginia and has hit all eight of his field-goal attempts this season. He’s 6-of-12 from 40-49 yards in his career, so he’s not particularly accurate from distance, but he is consistent, missing only twice from inside 40 yards on 29 attempts.

Punter Oliver Straw is an Australian product who can kick with either foot thanks to his Australian rules football background and can also kick rugby style, but hasn’t been needed much in recent games, attempting only three punts since the Mountaineers needed him six times in the opener. Three of his nine punts have landed inside the 20-yard line.

On kickoff returns, West Virginia is averaging only 15.8 yards per return — Texas may opt to avoid touchbacks and try to win some field position in that area of special teams. Towson did have some success against the kickoff coverage unit, returning a kick for a 96-yard touchdown.


The ESPN matchup predictor gives Texas an 85.1-percent chance to win this game and the betting line is now up to 9.5 points on DraftKings*, but the possibility that West Virginia could shorten the game by controlling the clock with a ball-control offense that wears out the Longhorns defense raises the possibility that the Mountaineers could pull off the upset.

The Texas defense needs to do a better job getting off the field and the offense will have to find ways to consistently gain yardage on the ground to avoid becoming heavily reliant on a passing game that still isn’t producing on shot plays on a regular basis.

*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.