A Test, But Only The First

If West Virginia's defense hopes to avoid the sort of shootout most seem to expect this week against No. 25 Baylor, it will have to contain a group of skill position players that is clearly better than any the Mountaineers have faced thus far this season.

That's said with all due respect to Marshall's Rakeem Cato and Aaron Dobson. Obviously, Maryland's Stefon Diggs was every bit as good as advertised. Individually, they will be among the better players WVU faces this season.

But the Bears present a different sort of challenge in that they mirror the Mountaineers with multiple threats at key positions.

It starts, of course, at quarterback. Nick Florence gets much of the attention for Baylor because of who he replaced. Yes, Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy and was the second overall pick in this year's NFL Draft.

Florence has put up the sort of production necessary to avoid a major dropoff in the wake of the loss of RG3, ranking first in the nation in individual total offense at 387.67 yards per game. He is the only player ahead of WVU's Geno Smith in that category.

But while Florence has had a spectacular start to the season, he has several key weapons to thank. The Bears lost star receiver Kendall Wright to the NFL as well, but have had no problems making plays in the passing game thanks to Terrance Williams and Tevin Reese.

Williams ranks sixth nationally in receiving yards per game at 117.67 -- one spot ahead of the Mountaineers' Tavon Austin and two spots ahead of Stedman Bailey. He is a serious deep threat, averaging more than 20 yards per reception. Reese is more apt to use his agility in the open field to make potential tacklers miss. He is 15th in the country in average receiving yards at 101.33.

Like West Virginia's one-two punch of Austin and Bailey, Williams and Reese have complimentary skills that work to punish defenses that are too apt to either sit back and defend the deep ball or crowd the line of scrimmage in the hopes of defending quicker passes.

And like the Mountaineers, Baylor has an underrated rushing attack. The Bears rank 35th in the country in rushing offense, averaging 207 yards per game on the ground.

To put it simply, a one-size-fits-all approach to defense won't work against Baylor. Mixing things up is essential -- as is bringing a bit of heat on Florence.

As a senior with plenty of game experience, Florence isn't the sort of quarterback a defense can easily confuse with exotic coverage schemes or pre-snap disguises. The one issue Florence has had has been in handling pressure. He has thrown four interceptions, and most of his errant throws have been hurried.

Mountaineer coach Dana Holgorsen has repeatedly said this week that there are significant differences between his scheme and that of BU. He, of course, is right. Baylor's attack isn't like most of the spread offenses WVU will face in the Big 12. The Bears are content to lull defenses to sleep with the running game, and just as an extra player or two creeps into the box, Florence will throw a deep pass.

With all those factors at hand, it makes for an interesting test for West Virginia's somewhat unproven defense. With a scheme that is hell-bent on creating turnovers, one might see the Mountaineers play as aggressively on defense as Maryland was when it played in Morgantown last Saturday.

It's a high-risk, high-reward proposition: WVU may be forced to leave its corners in tough situations against the talented Williams and Reese in the hopes of getting to Florence and forcing a bad throw. The results should be explosive either way -- big plays for Baylor or momentum-changing turnovers for the Mountaineers.

This is all a far cry from West Virginia's Big East days of yore, when the team's defense, on a good day, could essentially shut down its opponents. Instead, this must be what it felt like to defend the Mountaineers in the Pat White era -- the definition of "success" on defense has to evolve.

That's ultimately what will define the on-field difference between the Mountaineers' old conference home and their new one. Baylor is simply the first of what will be a long line of talented Big 12 offenses that will create matchup problems for WVU.

How West Virginia's coaches handle those threats schematically and how the players respond in live game situations could be the first real clue as to how the 2012 season will ultimately be remembered in Morgantown.

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