7-1 West Virginia travels to Austin for a dawn kickoff with the Jekyll and Hyde Longhorns. The Mountaineers won last year’s contest 38-20 in Morgantown.
Record: (5-4). The Longhorns have had the type of roller coaster season that makes it tough to get a bearing on how good they actually are. They beat Notre Dame and UTEP to open the year, lost 3 in a row to Cal, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State, beat Iowa State, and lost to Kansas State before beating Baylor and Texas Tech the past two weeks. There’s not a bad loss on that resume, but unfortunately there’s not really a great win either. And this matches the Texas narrative to this point: super talented, but still putting all the pieces together.
HC: Charlie Strong. Strong’s seat has become a bit warmer than most in the midst of his 3rd season in Austin, because though the Longhorns have cleaned up on the recruiting trail, that off-field success has yet to translate into any real improvement on it. Strong’s 16-18 record to this point has never been good enough for a Texas head coach to keep his job for long, and there are many around the program who feel he should have to win out to keep his job. The fact that they finish the season with us, Kansas, and TCU makes that goal wildly achievable, but the whole point of this paragraph is that under Charlie Strong, Texas hasn’t really been doing what Texas does.
OC: Sterlin Gilbert. Gilbert is in his 1st year at Texas after filling the same role at Tulsa last year. He worked his way up through Texas’s high school football scene, and the Longhorns have really seen the offense take off in his first year charge.
DC: Vance Bedford. Bedford is in his 3rd season at Texas after following Charlie Strong over from Louisville, but despite consecutive years of stellar recruiting classes the defense has seemed to regress in each of his years at the helm, and is one of the main reasons why this whole coaching staff has toasty buns right now.
Lots of green for the good guys, and no clear advantages for Texas outside of maybe their running game. Good to see that we sweep the big play stats, as well. You need to win that battle to have a chance to win on the road.
OUR OFFENSE VS THEIR DEFENSE
Players to watch: DT Poona Ford, NT Chris Nelson, FOX Breckyn Hager, LB Malik Jefferson, LB Anthony Wheeler, CB John Bonney, CB Kris Boyd, FS Jason Hall
Anyone who’s watched the Longhorns over the past year or two can tell you that they have an abundance of defensive talent, but they’ve actually regressed statistically in every season that Strong and Co have been on campus. This failure to live up to expectations has been even more perplexing this year considering who/what they returned, but it got to the point where the coaching staff felt the need to bench a few starters before the Baylor game two weeks ago just to shake things up a bit. They’ve actually been a bit better since then, but overall their national rankings paint the picture of a unit that has been objectively below average in just about every area besides run defense, where they merely classify as average. Despite that though, they do have some very talented dudes lining up on that side of the ball.
Tackles Chris Nelson and Poona Ford and end Chris Omenihu spearhead a defensive front that has Texas leading the conference in sacks and 2nd in TFL, while linebackers Anthony Wheeler, Malik Jefferson, and Breckyn Hager are flying around (sometimes a bit too much) at the second level. Wheeler and Jefferson were both preseason All-Conference selections and are currently 1-2 on the team in tackles, while Hager’s versatility in their Fox position allows Texas to play both odd and even fronts without changing personnel. Free safety Jason Hall has been extremely active in the secondary, ranking 4th on the team in both tackles and pass breakups. Throw in a trio of pretty decent sophomore corners and you have what looks like a hell of a unit, at least on paper. Unfortunately for Texas fans though, there’s been too much inconsistency and to this point we’ve only seen flashes of how good they can be.
The key to the game offensively will be avoiding turnovers. We’re facing an extremely young, albeit extremely talented defense, so the last thing we need to do is throw them a bone or two in their own house. I’ve been to DKR both times we’ve played them down there, and one thing that stood out is just how damn loud that place gets after turnovers (I vaguely remember getting smacked with a wall of noise when they recovered Geno’s fumble for a TD in 2012). We have to avoid that at all costs, not only for the obvious tangible reasons related to winning, but also because Texas has been an objectively better team at home, and you can’t give a young team like this any extra juice when they’re playing in front of their home fans. We’ve moved the ball on just about everybody and they’ve let just about everybody move it on them, so I’m confident that we’ll be able to pick up yards, but it’s crucial that we take care of the ball so that we’re able to capitalize on our opportunities and keep their fans subdued.
OUR DEFENSE VS THEIR OFFENSE
Players to watch: QB Shane Buechele, RB D’Onta Foreman, WR Armanti Foreman, WR Devin Duvernay
The Longhorns are in the middle of an offensive revival under 1st year Coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, and their numbers are up across the board from last year. They’re currently averaging 37.0 points (27th nationally), 247.3 rushing yards (16th), 258.1 passing yards (42nd), 505.4 total yards (14th), and 9.6 total explosive plays (45th) per game. The passing game in particular is a damn sight better than it was a year ago when they ranked last in the conference in both total yards and explosive plays through the air, and having a QB who’s at least competent has had a very nice effect on the rest of the offense, as well.
The biggest difference in that regard has obviously been true freshman QB Shane Buechele. Buechele has completed 62% of his 278 attempts to average just a shade over 250 yards per game with 19 touchdowns and just 6 interceptions, and in general has done a very nice job executing their offense for a first-time starter. Like all young QB’s he’s been a bit inconsistent at times, but overall he’s picked his spots well and has spread it around nicely to his talented receivers.
Speaking of those receivers, Armanti Foreman (33 catches, 414 yards, 3 touchdowns) has been the main target so far, but really they have 7 or 8 guys who have caught a number of passes this year. Former QB Jerrod Heard (18, 227, 3) and freshman Devin Duvernay (13, 300, 3), whose 23.1 yards per catch would lead the conference if he’d caught enough balls to qualify, are two in particular who have done a nice job stepping in and making plays. However, despite this very considerable aerial resurgence, the real strength of this offense is on the ground.
Such is the prowess of Texas’ running game, that, like the famous Friday Night Lights quote, there have been times this year when all Buechele had to do was exist in that second between snap and handoff. They’ve run the ball 45+ times in every game but one this year (the loss to Kansas State), and with the injury to Chris Warren, the man getting the majority of those touches has been Armanti’s brother D’Onta Foreman, though we’ll probably see some of freshman Kyle Porter, as well. Foreman has topped 100 yards in each of his 8 outings this year (including a ridiculous 250 and 341 the past 2 weeks) and is on pace for 2,100+ yards and 20 touchdowns if the Longhorns make a bowl game (which they will). He gashed us for 147 yards on 18 carries (8.2 ypc) at home last year behind several of the same guys who are still blocking for him, and at 6’1 250 he’s bigger than all but 3 of our defensive starters.
Considering that, you have to think that this game will be won or lost in the trenches, with the key being how well our front 6 handles themselves. The Longhorns have been committed to that running game all year (60/40 run/pass so far), so we’re going to have to strap it up extra tight this week in the face of that because they will literally hand it off until we stop them. If we can, especially on 1st down, not only will it mitigate their play-action game, but it’ll also force them into obvious passing situations where we can try to get after their young QB and hopefully force a turnover or two. If we can’t, it’s going to be an extremely long and disappointing day to be a Mountaineer wherever you may be.
With the exception of their punter, who ranks 3rd nationally with a very nice 47.9 yards per kick, Texas’ Special Teams units seem to range from slightly above average to slightly below it. Their kicker has made 75% of his 16 kicks, good for 54th nationally, but has only made 90% of his 39 extra points, which ranks all the way down at 122nd. The coverage units are giving up 7.8 yards per punt return and 21.1 yards per kick return, ranking 66th and 69th nationally, respectively, and the return units aren’t really much better, ranking 59th in punts and 109th in kickoffs. Overall their statistical profile isn’t all that different from ours, and there don’t look to be any areas where one side or another holds a distinct advantage.
If we can stop (or at least slow down) the run and minimize turnovers then I like our chances. Fail to do that and I don’t. There’s something oddly reassuring about the simplicity of the task at hand, but that doesn’t mean that it’ll be easy. Quite the contrary, when considering the nature of their offense and the amount of success they’ve had running the ball against us in years past I think this will be the toughest test we’ve faced yet. Overall, I’m expecting a lot of offense from both sides. I think they’ll again have their share of success moving the ball on us, but our offense can be pretty good in their own right, and if we can break even in the turnover department then I think we have just enough to beat them across the finish line.
West Virginia 38 Texas 35