Baylor is 3-0 this season, just like it was last year when it served as the first-ever in-conference Big 12 foe for the Mountaineers in a 70-63 loss. And, just like last season, the Bears remain largely untested entering the game, having defeated Wofford, Buffalo and Louisiana-Monroe by a combined 209-23. The idea this time around is to make the Mountaineers a springboard instead of a cinderblock.
"It started up there," Briles said. "You go up there and lose by seven and we got on a downward spiral and it took us awhile to regroup and regain momentum and confidence and get out of it, and we did. That's a tribute to our staff and players for bouncing back the way we did. But that did start a downward spiral for us."
Baylor lost four consecutive games after the 3-0 start last season – including a bit of a shocker at Iowa State – and the bloodletting was only stopped by a 41-14 drubbing of woeful Kansas. But unlike last season for the Bears and Mountaineers, both teams now have defenses with a pulse. The biggest margin of difference between the two is that Baylor seems to have retained its offensive firepower, averaging 70 points and 750 yards of offense per game, both tops in the NCAA. The Mountaineers, in contrast have needed major help from the defense while ranking 101st in points for with little more than 20 per game.
"Quite honestly, we hadn't paid any attention to that, and I can say that with a straight face," Briles said of his team's offensive rankings. "We understand where we are at in our season and we understand that we are 0-0 in conference play and we have played one game in the last 27 days, so we have kind of been sitting on the outside looking in the last three or four weeks. We feel like we just got to get on the field and try to continue the little bit of momentum we created earlier both sides of the ball and special teams. We feel like we are at point zero. If we look up in seven or eight weeks and we are still rolling on both sides, we will be feeling pretty good about where we are at."
So the major question is, how good, exactly, is this Baylor offense currently? Saturday's 8 p.m. contest should be revealing. West Virginia limited a then-No. 11 Oklahoma State team averaging 45 points per game to just 21, including none over the game's final 26 minutes. But the Cowboys missed on a handful of big plays when receivers dropped passes or sophomore quarterback J.W. Walsh badly overthrew, including a fatal late-game interception to Darwin Cook. That hasn't yet happened with Baylor QB Bryce Petty, who has already amassed more than 1,000 yards passing with a 74.6 completion percentage and eight scores with no picks to lead the nation in pass efficiency.
His main target is Antwan Goodley, whose 14 catches for 370 yards and four scores create a 26.4-yard average. The product of a storied Midland program – proving all BU's Xs live in Texas – Goodley possesses a rare blend of strength and quickness that makes him difficult to defend, even for WVU's sizeable corners who match-up well with his 5-10 height. Fellow wideout Tevin Reese (5-10, 170 lbs.) is netting 23.4 yards per catch with three touchdowns, and the duo has help lift Petty to a national-best with 20 yards per completion.
"He's been, really, what we thought he would be once he was thrown in the ring," Briles said of Goodley. "Very explosive, very dynamic and very powerful. He possesses all those traits. He's a good football player and has just been waiting to get on the field. He really started helping us about the last four or five games last year. He started making an impact receiving and rushing the football. We ran him a few times in games and he did a good job for us late. His role started increasing toward the end of last year and then kind of has ascended with where we are at in our short term."
Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year Lache Seastrunk, of self-prophetized Heisman winning predictions, is averaging 11 yards per carry with 417 rush yards. The Baylor offense, which has scored 24 of 25 offensive touchdowns in less than two minutes, also boasts a veteran offensive line anchored by left guard Cyril Richardson. Tackle Spencer Drango is among the Big 12's best at left tackle.
"They are really good," said the typically modest Briles. "They are as athletic as we have had and as determined as we have had. The good thing about it is we have three fifth-year guys up there. They have never started before, but they have come in and done a great job for us. Our left guard, he's the Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year. That says enough. The other guys are third-year guys. We have a lot of experience up there and we have a lot of determination."
Baylor's defense, rated just above West Virginia's in the majority of the NCAA ranks last season, has progressed, though how much remains to be seen. BU has held its lesser competition to less than eight points per game, and, much like WVU, seems more structurally sound, which really began in a 49-26 Holiday Bowl win over UCLA.
"Those guys on defense just got better as the season went on," Briles said. "I just think evolution, through time and patience and good players and through a determined mindset of our football team in general, not just our defense, we progressed. (Last year) we go up there on the road and they were good; they put some points on us. But if you check the standings in the league, you'll see it happened to some other teams as well. How you respond determines where you end up. Fortunately our guys responded well and played some good defense just like we are this year.
"We came out of the bowl game against what we knew was a really good UCLA football team – we had a lot of respect for them and it shows with what they have done this year – and really played outstanding on defense. During the summer and on through the fall, we had eight guys back, and we feel really confident in what they are doing over there."
The Mountaineers have their own issues on the flip side, starting a trio of quarterbacks this season and being unable to establish a reliable rushing game. Ford Childress has a pectoral injury that will keep him out against the Bears, while Clint Trickett is mending a banged up shoulder. WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen has not announced if Trickett will play; his day-to-day listing could mean the junior is a game-time decision.
"They've all had effective times," Briles said of Childress, Trickett and Paul Millard. "I guess Dana felt like it was time to go with Trickett and I think he played really well for them. He threw the ball really well and kept plays alive and he ended up with a big win against the No. 11 team in America. Apparently, Dana made the right choice. … That certainly was a huge win and that surprised a lot of people. But we know from going up there, when you waltz into that stadium and that town, it's a tough environment."