West Virginia, Baylor seek uplifting finish
West Virginia and Baylor both saw their Big 12 title hopes squashed by mid-November, but both still have plenty to play for in their regular season finale on Saturday afternoon in Morgantown, W. Va..
Baylor (6-5, 3-5 Big 12), which has dropped five in a row since beginning the season with a 6-0 start that included an impressive 35-24 victory over Oklahoma State, could finish with a winning record for the seventh straight season by beating 14th-ranked Mountaineers. That's something that has never been done before in school history.
West Virginia (9-2, 6-2) can win 10 games for just the ninth time in school history. And if the Mountaineers can also pick up a victory in a bowl game, Dana Holgorsen's squad would match the school record with an 11-win season. Not bad for a team picked to finish seventh in the Big 12's preseason media poll.
If that isn't enough to get West Virginia fired up, there's this: 62-38. That's the score of the Mountaineers' loss to Baylor last year in Waco, Texas.
“We all know what this one means,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson told The Dominion Post. “We know what Baylor brings. We've had Dec. 3, 2016, marked down for a long time.
“Our kids will have a great week, and they'll be jacked up and hopefully our fans will come out and support those seniors who have done something we've never done — six wins in the Big 12. We have a lot to be proud of in this team.”
Baylor comes in off an embarrassing 54-35 loss to a Texas Tech team that finished the season 5-7. Despite a nightmarish year that featured the firing of head coach Art Briles and a sexual assault scandal — 17 women reported 19 sexual or physical assaults involving football players since 2011, including four gang rapes — the school announced it still planned to play in a bowl game.
“Our intent, at this time, is to accept a bowl bid for our student-athletes who have worked so hard to earn it over the course of this season,” Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades said in a statement provided to ESPN. “Our focus, as it has been throughout the season, is on our student-athletes and trying to finish strong against a great West Virginia team this weekend in Morgantown.”
“I'm very, very proud of our players who have remained loyal to Baylor. They've given me 100-plus reasons for hope in these difficult times,” interim head coach Jim Grobe said.
The 64-year-old Grobe announced on Monday that he will not return to coach after this season. SMU's Chad Morris is considered the frontrunner to take over.
“Honestly, football needs a fresh start,” Grobe said. “All the other sports here are in great shape right now, and I would expect the next coach to have football competing for championships in a hurry. Whoever gets this job is going to be very fortunate.”
Freshman quarterback Zach Smith, taking over for injured starter Seth Russell (ankle surgery), passed for 377 yards and three TDs against Texas Tech. Grobe said he improved significantly from his first start a week earlier against Kansas State. Smith will have to improve further for Baylor to win at West Virginia.
Bears wide receiver KD Cannon has been a standout on an otherwise lackluster Baylor offense this season. He caught 12 passes for 132 yards and two TDs against Texas Tech. With one game left in the season, he needs 95 yards to reach 1,000 for the season.
Sophomore Terence Williams took over the role as Baylor's go-to running back this season. He leads the team in rushing by 133 yards over senior Shock Linwood. Williams needs 155 yards to reach 1,000 for the season.
West Virginia comes in off an impressive 49-19 victory at Iowa State. With his top three tailbacks all out due to injury, Holgorsen decided to take the redshirt off true freshman Martell Pettaway in the 11th game of the season. Pettaway responded by rushing 30 times for 180 yards and a touchdown.
“We had no choice,” Holgorsen said. “If he was a selfish guy, he wouldn't have been on board with that. … He took advantage of his opportunity.”
With Pettaway starring, quarterback Skyler Howard threw only 21 passes, completing 12 for an outrageous 330 yards. That's an average of 27.5 yards per completion, and five of those went for TDs. Baylor is second in the conference in pass defense at 234.2 yards per game, but it was destroyed by Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes last week and could get shelled again by Howard on Saturday.