The No. 12 West Virginia Mountaineers will look to improve to 6-0 for the first time since 2006 and also stay on top of the Big 12 Conference standings when they host the TCU Horned Frogs in Morgantown, W.Va., on Saturday afternoon.
The Mountaineers (5-0, 2-0 Big 12) have developed a reputation for producing high-powered offenses in recent years, but come in off a sparkling defensive effort, winning 48-17 at Texas Tech last week. The Red Raiders entered the contest leading the nation in passing offense (544 yards per game) and were second in scoring offense (55.2).
“It's a good plane ride home but after that you settle in and get back to work,” West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “… It goes away really quick.”
Tony Gibson's defensive unit held the Red Raiders 280 yards and 38 points below their season averages. The 17 points were a season-low for Tech and snapped a streak of nine consecutive home games where the Red Raiders had scored at least 50 points.
West Virginia, which lost nine starters from last year's defensive unit and arguably its best player in free safety Dravon Askew-Henry in fall camp to a torn ACL, has utilized the odd 3-3-5 stack and disguised its blitzing to create problems for opposing offenses.
“What we do defensively is hard for me to attack,” Holgorsen said.
The Horned Frogs (4-2, 2-1) provide more of a running threat than Texas Tech. But if the season's first five games are any guide, Gibson will come up with a scheme to combat TCU's version of the spread.
“Because they move around so much, it looks like there are 12, 13 people out there sometimes,” Holgorsen said. “Just being able to disguise stuff is very important. Only having three down linemen gives you more second-level players that you can move around and blitz people from different spaces.”
It didn't hurt that the offense kept West Virginia ahead all day, establishing a season high for points despite occasional bouts of sloppiness that left Holgorsen frustrated on the sideline. But quarterback Skyler Howard threw for 318 yards, rushed for 89 and accounted for three scores in probably his best all-around game of the year.
The Mountaineers rolled up 332 yards on the ground at Texas Tech and nearly had three 100-yard rushers. Rushel Shell finished with 104, backup Kennedy McCoy gained 99 on just four carries and Howard added 89 on 12 attempts. Opponents are gaining 150.7 yards per game on the ground against TCU, so it's not an impossible defense on which to run.
West Virginia's defense will have to try and find a way to slow down TCU quarterback Kenny Hill, who passed for 2,142 yards and 12 touchdowns but is also experiencing interception issues. The junior threw three interceptions in the unexpectedly tight 24-23 win at lowly Kansas on Oct. 8 and has the most interceptions (eight) in the Big 12. Hill also can make things happen with his legs as he is tied for the team lead with seven rushing touchdowns.
The game against Kansas marked the second time Hill has thrown multiple interceptions in a game. And it increased chatter that his decision-making can be suspect.
“This offense, it's the nature of it,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said of the interceptions. “You're not going to win very many ballgames if you do (throw interceptions), but that has a little bit more to do with us, how we call it and what we do.”
Hill passed for a season-worst 206 yards against Kansas — well off the pace expected from a quarterback who topped 400 yards in three of his first five starts for the Horned Frogs.
TCU (4-2, 2-1), which has had two weeks to prepare for this one, could certainly use the mistake-free version of Hill on Saturday. The Horned Frogs are averaging 40.2 points, but Patterson is aware it will be tough to approach that number after watching West Virginia limit Texas Tech's powerful offense to 17 points last Saturday.
“You have to make plays and tackle in space, and they were able to do that,” Patterson said. “They got after Patrick (Mahomes II), who is a really good quarterback. They have great skill players.
“You have to be able to run the ball against them. Two years ago, we had to run the football to win. If you can't, you're going to get yourself in a lot of trouble.”