Three years ago, West Virginia appeared to be perfectly set up for the move from the Big East to the high-octane Big 12. It had the coach who knew Big 12 offenses in Dana Holgorsen, it had the high-powered attack coming off a dominant Orange Bowl win over Clemson, and it had everything set up to be a major player in the new league.
Okay, so the defense has taken a few years to come around, but defense has occasionally been optional in a Big 12 with some of the best passing games in college football. You don’t need to have an Alabama defensive front to succeed – you just need a D that can hold its own once in a while as the offense does its thing.
Unfortunately, West Virginia hasn’t been able to outbomb everyone else. Baylor has led the Big 12 in total offense in each of the last three seasons. TCU rose up last year, and Oklahoma State finished ahead of the Mountaineers in yards in 2012 and 2013. Even with one of the nation’s best offenses, West Virginia was still fourth in the Big 12 in total offense and hasn’t been higher than third in its three years in the conference.
So, Holgorsen and his attack is mainly just a part of the fun, rather than a differentiator, so the defense has to start to work. A disaster in the first two seasons – finishing eighth in the league in 2012 and second-to-last in 2013 – all of a sudden there were signs of life last season.
The Mountaineer defense went from god-awful to just okay, and while it all resulted in just a 7-6 season, part of the problem was the loss of quarterback Clint Trickett, and the team was ultra-competitive in battles with elite Alabama and TCU teams.
This season there’s real reason to think that this could be the true breakthrough season. The conference might be One True Champion tough, but the Mountaineers are part of that with ten starters returning on a defense that should be the strongest yet under Holgorsen, and with the offense welcoming back nine starters with the potential for far more consistency.
Unfortunately, the Mountaineers can do absolutely everything right and still have to fight and claw their way to a top three conference finish. But at least they’re right there. They have a chip in the big game this season.
What You Need To Know About The Offense: Excellent last season, especially through the air, the offense should be terrific again despite the loss of star receiver Kevin White. Skyler Howard is ready to rise up and shine as the program’s new statistical monster quarterback, and he’ll be helped by the 1-2 rushing punch of Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood. The line might not be dominant, but it’s going to be good enough with a few moving parts and with enough talent to be fine. There isn’t a White at receiver, but there are several good receivers who can produce in the West Virginia system – don’t expect a massive drop in production.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: Be very, very shocked if this isn’t the best defense of the Dana Holgorsen era by far. The pass rush in the 3-4 alignment has to improve in a big way, but there’s size and experience on the front three – it should be a good group against the run. Nick Kwiatkoski leads a tremendous linebacking corps that has depth and experience across the board. If the playmaking in the backfield comes from this group, the D could be better by leaps and bounds. The safety tandem of Karl Joseph and Daryl Worley is terrific as the main men for a secondary that should be among the best in the Big 12.
The schedule: The Mountaineers have a very, very dangerous game to open things up having to deal with the nightmare of a Georgia Southern running game. This isn’t the team you want to start with – it’s not a normal home opener layup.
– The real tune-up is against Liberty, and the Mountaineers will need it, getting a week off to follow with Maryland up next – could it be a shootout like it was last year? – and then it’s Game On in Big 12 play.
– WVU gets the big boys right away starting out at Oklahoma, following it up with an improved Oklahoma State, and then road trips to Baylor and TCU.
– At least there’s a week off between dealing with the Bears and Horned Frogs. Making matters worse considering the road games at OU, Baylor and TCU is a date at Kansas State to close out the regular season.
– WATCH OUT FOR … November. A problem for West Virginia the last two seasons, it should be easier this time around with Texas Tech, Kansas and Iowa State on the slate along with a date against Texas. It might be tempting to think things are about to ease up, but the team might need to be hot.
2014 Fun Stats:
– Fumbles: West Virginia 28 (lost 19) – Opponents 13 (lost 2)
– Fourth Quarter Scoring: West Virginia 117 – Opponents 56
– Penalties: Opponents 108 for 1,072 yards – West Virginia 85 for 757 yards