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Balanced West Virginia offense will challenge Texas defense

The Mountaineers can create big plays in the passing game and grind it out with a power rushing attack.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Dating back to his days at Oklahoma State, West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen has always been able to mold offenses with high-powered passing attacks and a physical running game.

Remember when he essentially introduced the Diamond formation to the world of college football?

And what makes it even more difficult to defend is the fact that he does it all at an extremely fast pace.

As with most teams, the offense goes as the quarterback goes. For the second year, that play is Florida State transfer Clint Trickett, who has impressed Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford on film.

"Trickett is a great manager of a game," Bedford said. "He does a tremendous job. He knows where to go with the ball. He runs the offense to perfection. They do a lot of glance like a lot of the spread teams do to get them in the right play. He gives his receivers a chance to make a play. What he does, he trusts his receivers to come down with the ball. He was throwing into double coverage, and so far this season, they have made a lot of plays for him.

Senior wide receiver John Harris was asked to compare Trickett to former Texas quarterback Case McCoy and saw some similarities.

"They're pretty similar to me," Harris said. "He has a lot of competitiveness to him. You can see it on film. He took a big hit this weekend I think against TCU. When we were watching the game, the kid got back up and kept playing. It's every bit of Case that I see in [him]. He's a great quarterback. He's playing great this year. I mean, he just reminds me of Case from last year. Just leading his team the way a quarterback should lead his team. I have the most respect to him and Case. Case did a tremendous job when he was here. He just reminds me of Case so much in so many different ways."

The Longhorns were able to knock Trickett out of the game last year with a concussion, but this is a different Trickett -- he's healthy and understands the offense. Keep in mind that not only did he have a torn labrum last year that he played through past the end of September, he had a separation of the AC joint and a partially torn rotator cuff in addition to being a transfer with little time to learn Holgorsen's unique blend of the Air Raid and power running after arriving last August.

Let's linger on those shoulder issues for a moment -- Trickett threw 153 passes with a torn up shoulder that would have caused many quarterbacks to end their respective seasons. Instead, he soldiered on because he wanted to be on the field.

The McCoy comparison fits in terms of toughness, but Trickett is probably a more gifted passer, throwing the deep ball well and possessing better overall arm strength now that his shoulder is fully healthy, though he has still been limited in putting on muscle mass because he also has Celiac disease, a digestive and autoimmune disorder that makes it hard for him to gain weight.

His favored target is breakout senior wide receiver Kevin White, who was a transfer himself last season and was productive, if not spectacular, in catching 35 passes for 507 yards and five touchdowns.

This season, however, he has blown those stats out of the water in becoming one of the nation's best wide receivers. Through nine games, he has caught 75 passes for 1,075 yards and eight touchdowns. All three of those numbers are good enough to lead the Big 12 and place White squarely in the competition to win the Biletnikoff Award.

When faced with single coverage, White can destroy opposing defensive backs, even a good one like Oklahoma's Zack Sanchez.

The Mountaineers are not a finesse spread offense, running some 21 personnel as on the play above with two running backs and a tight end.

The goal?

To get eight defenders into the box. It works, as Oklahoma has only one deep safety as a result and has to worry about explosive wide receivers to either side, which is not an especially effective strategy.

The safety is late getting over and White beats Sanchez with a step and shoulder fake outside to get the clean inside release. At that point, White's just too fast for the cornerback or the late-arriving safety.

TCU and Oklahoma State were able to hold White to three catches in each game, a number that combined equaled the worst performance of the season in catches for the star wide receiver heading into the Oklahoma State.

Bedford certainly took note on film and was asked what those teams did to stop the 6'3, 210-pounder who transferred from Lackawanna College two years ago.

"What they did too is they doubled him because you can roll up and force him to beat them," Bedford said. "[West Virginia has] got to come off of coverage and jam coverage and try to get him the ball. So what they did is they took him out of the game so they forced the throws to the [other] receivers. They do have some other receivers."

The biggest threat of those receivers is 5'9, 177-pound Mario Alford, who was primarily a running back at Georgia Military College before he transferred to West Virginia.

He has 49 catches for 679 yards and seven touchdowns in his own breakout season.

"He can fly," Bedford said. "We looked at last year's game and he caught a pass, split the defense, and he took it to the house. He's done that this year several times. I'm watching the Maryland game right now and it looks like the DB has great coverage and Alford is not very big and he jumps over the guy and catches a touchdown pass. It's not just one guy. People talk about White all the time but they complement each other very well."

The aforementioned catch went for 72 yards by Alford and was one of two passing plays to go for 70 or more yards against the Horns last season.

So defenses can't just key on White and expect that taking him out of the game will completely hamstring the West Virginia passing attack.

"If you worry about White, Alford and the other guys can beat you man-to-man," Bedford said. "It's a tough task. It's a lot like playing Kansas State as far as they had two receivers. These guys have two plus a slot receiver whose been very productive for them also. They have three solid players."

Against Oklahoma State two weeks ago, Alford went 79 yards for a touchdown and made it look easy.

On this play, the Oklahoma State safeties both get caught up in chasing offensive players heading into the flats, likely a coverage bust that resulted in Alford racing to a touchdown after catching a simple slant pass and pulling away from the defender.

At the least, Texas will scheme to avoid deep safeties having responsibilities for the flats.

In the running game, an offensive line that came into the season with 45 combined starts has been adequate, though the running backs haven't helped out much in creating explosive plays -- the Mountaineers have only two running plays of 30 or more yards this season, tied for No. 103 nationally.

After an injury to Rushel Shell recently, it's been an approach by committee after leading rusher Wendell Smallwood, whose longest run this season went for only 25 yards. The wonderfully-named Dreamius Smith has taken advantage of the opportunity provided by the injury to Shell in looking like the team's most explosive back over the last two games -- he has those runs over 30 yards, breaking one off for 40 yards against Oklahoma State and for 50 yards against TCU.

West Virginia will work to out-leverage and out-number at the point of attack with tight ends and lead blockers, exactly as was the case on the 40-yard touchdown run for Smith when he took the edge from a power formation and raced through the Oklahoma State secondary to find pay dirt.

When teams put too many players in the box to combat the running game, White makes plays like his long touchdown against Oklahoma.

Stopping big plays has been a forte of the Longhorns defense under Charlie Strong, so expect him to consider committing significant resources to continue ensuring that passing plays over the top or through a crease in the defense don't happen.

It's been the modus operandi for the Horns all season and the result has been a unit that has not given up a pass play or 40 or more yards this season, one of only two schools in the country to accomplish that feat.

The tempo could also cause problems for Texas. There aren't many teams that use such heavy sets and still run at such a pace. West Virginia is an exception in that regard, having run the second-most plays in the country.

As always, the challenge is in lining up correctly and making sure that the defensive call is effectively conveyed to the entire unit.

It doesn't take much of a seam for Alford to score long touchdowns and White can destroy single coverage easily -- there will be tremendous pressure on the Horns to figure out how to stop that from happening while getting aligned correctly and stopping a running game that will pound Texas into submission if given the chance.

Remember the 207 yards and two touchdowns from running back Andrew Buie in 2012? The same guy that redshirted last season and currently has fewer yards this season than he did two years ago in Austin on 19 fewer carries.

The takeaway is that Holgorsen won't move away from the running game as quickly as Texas Tech head coach Kliff KIngsbury did last week much to the benefit of a reeling Texas run defense.

On third down, West Virginia can be a hard team to keep off the field, as the Mountaineers convert at a rate of 47.2%, which is good for No. 19 nationally.

In the loss to TCU last weekend, the Horned Frogs were able to stop the Mountaineer offense in critical situation, holding Holgorsen's offense to 6 of 19 on the day, the lowest conversion rate on the season.

So there are a number of challenges that Texas faces this season, but the good news is that the Horns have faced some strong offenses already, so there's been some on-field preparation already.