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Smoking Musket Q&A: How will the WVU defensive backs match up?

Can the Texas passing attack challenge the Mountaineers?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 22 West Virginia at Virginia Tech Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Texas Longhorns and the West Virginia Mountaineers are two teams at a crossroads.

After dropping the first two games of the season, WVU dismantled Towson and dominated rival Virginia Tech in Week 4 to move to 2-2 on the season. On the other hand, Texas, after a gut-check loss in Lubbock hopes to avoid starting conference play 0-2 and seeing the trajectory of the program once again come into question. And on a more immediate note, a win for either team allows them more control of their own destiny in the race for the Big 12 title.

To help us unpack what the Mountaineers will bring to Austin, we reached out to Matt Kirchner (@MKirchner12) of The Smoking Musket (@smokingmusket) to help us preview the matchup.

Burnt Orange Nation: It’s almost been a tale of two teams with West Virginia this year, with two losses to open the season, then two convincing wins over the last two games. What changed for the Mountaineers between Week 2 and Week 3?

Matt Kirchner, The Smoking Musket: Frankly, it’s hard to pinpoint anything that West Virginia has done differently beyond, you know, just winning the games. I don’t think anyone faulted them for losing to Pitt on a relatively fluky pick-six in an absolutely bonkers environment. They played well enough to win that game. Then Kansas came into Morgantown and won, sending WVU Twitter (myself included) into an unbelievable tailspin. At that point, I don’t think anyone truly realized how ridiculous Kansas’ offense was and West Virginia was caught off guard and still had a chance to win in overtime before a late hit gave Kansas second life on their first overtime drive.

Then came a week three get-right game against Towson leading into the short week before a Thursday tilt in Blacksburg, where West Virginia was really able to take out some aggression. Towson was Towson, WVU did what they needed to do there, but played a lot more disciplined in the secondary against Virginia Tech and avoided the busts that proved deadly against Kansas’ Jalon Daniels-fueled death machine.

Do I necessarily think that West Virginia is good? No. But they’re absolutely trending more good than bad, and certainly not to where they were being projected after the Kansas loss. And, as we move on to the next question, they finally are back to having an offense that can help overcome defensive issues. It truly is the West Virginia curse to never have a good offense and good defense at the same time, ever.

BON: This will be JT Daniels’ second trip to Austin after coming with USC in 2018. What should Texas fans expect from the former five-star quarterback when he makes his return trip to Austin?

After watching West Virginia flail around like a Magikarp at Quarterback for the first three years of Neal Brown’s tenure, JT Daniels is a breath of fresh air that this fanbase desperately needed. Five-star pedigree is a real thing that is hard to replicate and even through his injury-cursed career that eventually led him to Morgantown, he just oozes the kind of leadership you need from a winning power five quarterback, and hopefully, West Virginia’s bounce back is real because I’d hate to see what is likely only a year on campus be wasted by a sub-par defense.

I think the biggest thing he’s brought to the program is being a quarterback who his receivers can trust to make the right throw at the right time. West Virginia just did not have that with Austin Kendall or Jarrett Doege. When you see West Virginia’s offense on Saturday, it’s the same guys that have been playing, largely, for the entirety of the Neal Brown era. They’re just making plays because they finally have a Quarterback putting them in the right position drive after drive. For a program that never really went more than a year without a legitimately good quarterback since the late 90s, the three-year desert of the start of the Neal Brown era has been rough, it’s good to finally have a quarterback that doesn’t make me want to walk into the ocean and never come back out.

BON: CJ Donaldson and Tony Mathis have shared the load on the ground for West Virginia and have been effective. What has WVU done to find success on the ground?

Well for starters, CJ Donaldson is just a wrecking ball that no one’s figured out how to address yet, and that’s great. Moving a three-star tight end/slot receiver hybrid to running back and it working flawlessly is some real NCAA 14 shit and it’s hilarious to see it work in real life.

In terms of their more traditional running backs, Virginia Tech was some of the best-run blocking we’ve seen out of Matt Moore’s unit in the three years and change he’s been the offensive line coach in Morgantown. It helps. It actually wouldn’t surprise me if you saw a little bit more Justin Johnson than Tony Mathis on Saturday as he hit the holes a lot more aggressively than Mathis and scored against VT. Mathis fumbled early and was actually benched until garbage time, which is accountability that we haven’t seen often under Neal Brown.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how balanced Graham Harrell has been while calling WVU’s offense. He hasn’t forgotten that he has three solid backs and has consistently emphasized getting them going, which has just opened things up for JT and the receivers.

BON: The Mountaineers’ defense has done a good job getting into the backfield, with three players with three tackles for loss this year. How have they been able to create havoc for opponents?

It all starts with Dante Stills and his never-ending eligibility. Even if he’s not stuffing the stat sheet, he’s occupying blockers and giving other guys opportunities. West Virginia is also comfortable playing 7-8 defensive linemen in their three-man front, which allows for good rotation and keeps everyone fresh so they’re still able to get after it late in games.

Their pass pressure could stand to improve, but they have been stonewalling opposing rushing attempts.

BON: What is one storyline you’re watching on Saturday?

It has to be how West Virginia’s secondary stands up against Texas’ wide receivers, regardless of who’s playing Quarterback. For as good as Bijan is, West Virginia probably views any Texas rushing attempt as a win. They have to have ball discipline and avoid grabbing the second the receiver gets past them or Texas is going to be able to go downfield on them all day.

BON: What’s your prediction for the game?

I try to shy away from score predictions, but I think this is going to be an old-fashioned Big 12 shootout that ends in the 40s or high 30s. No one to date has really been able to stop West Virginia’s offense, but West Virginia has done very little against the two better offenses they’ve faced in Pitt and Kansas. High scoring game, we’re going to be up late.