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What To Watch For: Previewing the West Virginia Mountaineers

The Mountaineers are 3-1 to start the season under first-year coach Neal Brown, but can WVU keep pace with a Texas offense that’s sure to produce points?

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Get through the non-conference slate with a winning record? Check. Start conference play 1-0? Check. Be known as a lively drinking town? Nailing it. And you thought I was just talking about the Longhorns of Austin.

Come Saturday, the 3-1 Texas Longhorns will travel to Morgantown, West Virginia to take on the 3-1 West Virginia Mountaineers as both teams look to remain undefeated in Big 12 Conference play.

It’s Year 1 of the Neal Brown-era in Morgantown and leadership at WVU is hoping that Brown can eventually take the football program past a level that Dana Holgorsen flirted with from time to time. That may be the long-term goal but this 3-1 West Virginia team still has some building to do before anything else.

As it stands now, Texas enters this game as about an 11-point favorite. The Longhorns currently rank fourth in the Big 12 in total offense and second in scoring offense, averaging just under 42 points per game.

In comparison, West Virginia ranks last in total offense and second to last in scoring offense, averaging about 25 points per game, though we could note they’ve combined for 73 points the past two games against N.C. State and Kansas.

As for Texas the defense, overall it’s been a solid unit, though injuries continue to keep key players off the field. With Texas needing some reserves to step up on Saturday afternoon, look for Brown and the Mountaineers to throw a handful of different formations and looks at the Longhorns’ defenders come Saturday.

What should Texas expect from the West Virginia offense?

First-year head coach Neal Brown made his way to West Virginia after leading his team to a 31-8 overall record, including three bowl wins, in three of the last four years as the head coach at Troy. Prior to Troy, notable stops for Brown included offensive coordinator roles at Texas Tech and Kentucky.

Though Brown was an offensive coordinator at Texas Tech and does incorporate some of Mike Leach’s Air Raid schemes and philosophies into his offense, he never actually coached with Leach in Lubbock. Instead, Brown accepted an the OC job from then-head coach Tommy Tuberville after Tech parted ways with Leach in 2009.

That doesn’t mean Brown and Leach never crossed paths... As a wide receiver in the late 90s, Brown played for Leach when Leach was beginning to hone in on what his Air Raid offense was all about.

Since then, Brown has incorporated some of the Air Raid strategies while forming an offense of his own that can deploy a number of different looks and formations to catch a defense off guard.

10-personnel, trips-set (4x1)

One set that the Mountaineers do seem to utilize throughout games is a 4x1 trips look. Given that Texas is dealing with some injuries at various spots in the secondary, I’d assume West Virginia deploys this look and other spread sets on Saturday to “hunt” for matchups or weak links the Texas defense may have.

The West Virginia offense isn’t necessarily an explosive unit but it does have a few playmakers and a capable quarterback in grad transfer Austin Kendall. After learning Lincoln Riley was recruiting yet another transfer quarterback, Kendall transferred to Morgantown in January of this year

Since arriving, Kendall has started all four games and has thrown for 871 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s posted an average completion percentage of about 65 percent, but his yards-per-attempt rank second to last in the conference at an even six. For comparison, Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger ranks third at nearly nine yards per attempt.

Another strategy Brown and West Virginia have deployed so far is the use of jet-motion pre-snap. In the first play below, the jet-motion is added on top of run play that causes the linebackers to hesitate as they diagnose the action.

With a couple of key blocks by the left tackle, right guard, and receiver down field, sophomore Leddie Brown picks up a nice gain.

Swap Kendall for a more mobile quarterback, and this play has the potential to cause defenses fits.

In the play below, West Virginia again utilizes the jet-motion, but this time Kendall flips it to freshman wide receiver Winston Wright for an eight-yard gain that fakes out the camera man more than the flat-footed NC State defense.

Among those formations and plays, West Virginia could show anything from five-wide or bunch formations out of shotgun to more standard 11-personnel formations in 3x1 sets and some RPO’s. And in Air Raid fashion, the tight ends aren’t targeted much in the passing game, but West Virginia does insert the hybrid TE/FB’s into the game when they go 12-personnel or need extra blockers.

As for notable skill players on the Mountaineers’ offense, it’s a mix of youth and inexperience at wide receiver along with some stability at running back.

Through four games, 6’0”, 182-pound redshirt freshman Sam James has hauled in 26 receptions, good for fifth in the Big 12. James did also flash some game-breaking ability when he posted 155 yards and a score against N.C. State. But outside of that performance, James has been held in check averaging about 36 yards per game in the three other contests.

Second on the team in receptions is actually senior running back Kennedy McKoy. Standing at 6’0 and 205 pounds, McKoy has caught 16 passes for 72 yards and leads the team in rushing with 151 yards on 48 carries.

Prior to this season, McKoy produced respectable numbers at West Virginia, averaging around 5.5 yards per carry and rushing for over 1,800 yards. This season, the struggles have stemmed from weaknesses along the offensive line along with a lack of playmakers around McKoy that would draw defenders away from the box.

McKoy does still have play-making ability, so the Longhorns will need to carry over the prowess they showed against Chuba Hubbard to ensure this isn’t the first game of the season in which McKoy rushes for over 100-plus yards.

Even with the injuries in the back end of the Texas defense, this West Virginia offense at times has to work hard to get down the field and shouldn’t be a threat to throw up a bunch of points on the board Saturday.

We’ll likely see Todd Orlando call various blitzes against Austin Kendall, who isn’t much of a mobile threat. But in the end, Texas may be better suited to play similar to how they played against Oklahoma State by sitting back and attempting to squash the West Virginia offense over the course of the game rather than pop them with aggression. And that could especially be true with some inexperienced corners manning the outside of the Texas defense.

What impact could the West Virginia defense have Against Texas?

The West Virginia defense is one that is in flux as it transitions from its notorious 3-3-5 scheme to more of a 4-2-5 under first-year Mountaineers defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.

It’s a somewhat interesting 4-2-5 that uses a front four that feels more like the Longhorns front when they use the b-backer as the fourth lineman rather than a traditional front with four down-linemen. This hybrid position in Koenning’s defense is called the “bandit” and it could be manned by former Alabama transfer VanDarius Cowan for the first time this season.

Through four games, the West Virginia defense ranks sixth in the conference in total defense and second to last in scoring defense. Considering the opponents have been James Madison, Missouri, N.C State, and Kansas, it’s clear this unit also has its own work to do moving forward.

Notable players across the unit include the Stills brothers, Dante and Darius, who sport numbers 55 and 56, respectively, and lead the team in sacks with a total of seven.

6’3”, 295-pound defense end Dante Stills deflects a pass that forces an interception

Along with the Stills brothers, weak side linebacker Josh Chandler and safety Josh Norwood anchor the defense. Chandler leads the team in tackles with 32, including 18 solo, while Norwood returns for his senior season after finishing 2018 third on the team in tackles and first in pass deflections with 10.

The Mountaineers’ defense has some pieces to work with, and the Texas offensive line will need to keep tabs on the Still brothers up front, but in all this West Virginia defense should have its hands full with Sam Ehlinger and the Texas offense come Saturday.

Road games can always be tough, and ones out of state can provide their own unique challenges as well. At 3-1, West Virginia isn’t necessarily a bad team but there’s also a reason the Longhorns are double-digit favorites heading into this one. If Texas can manage playing its first true road-game of the season, the Longhorns should have a good shot at extending their conference record to 2-0.