The stats are likely familiar by now. Highest scoring offense in the nation at 70 points per game. NCAA leaders in average yards with 751 per contest. First in passing yardage, fifth in rushing. Depth across the board. Scoring in less than two minutes on 24 of 25 touchdown drives. Baylor’s yardage totals from the first three games?All rank among the top four in school history, with the other total being the 700 yards amassed against WVU last season.
And that’s just the team. Quarterback Bryce Petty leads the country with an efficiency rating of 239.5. He’s fifth – and first in the Big 12 – with 333.7 passing yards per game. He leads the NCAA?with 20 yards per completion and is second in the country in completion percentage at 74.6 percent. In each of the first three games, Petty has thrown for at least 300 yards and two touchdowns and he’s already amassed more than 1,000 pass yards.
There’s more. Baylor, tied with USC and Arkansas for having the most wideouts (4) drafted by the NFL in the last four seasons, is also the only school in the country with two receivers in the top 10 for receiving yards per game. Antwan Goodley rates fifth nationally and first in the Big 12 with 123.3 per game, while Tevin Reese is 10th in the FBS and third conference with 116.7. Both are on the Biletnikoff watch list. The running game? It’s led by an experienced offensive line which returns the Big 12 Lineman of the Year and depth across the board. Running back Lache Seastrunk is ninth nationally and first in the Big 12 with 139 yards per game. He’s also second in the NCAA?and leads the Big 12 in scoring with 12 points per game. The Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, Seastrunk has rushed for 100+ yards in a school-record seven consecutive contests and is averaging 9.77 yards per carry in that stretch, totaling 108 rushes for 1,055 yards.
Ready to call uncle yet? Us, either. And here’s a couple reasons why: Baylor has yet to be truly challenged, playing Wofford, Buffalo and Louisiana-Monroe and outscoring them 209-23. And, perhaps more importantly, the Bears will be playing their first game in 27 days against a vastly improved Mountaineer defense. For an offense which relies so heavily on timing – albeit less than a true West Coast style – the Bears might need a series or three to shake the slumber. The windows, hopefully, will be tighter for Petty, the holes slower to open and faster to close for Seastrunk.
But let’s be clear. Baylor will score points. This is a matter not of stopping, but of limiting. The first aspect is matching up along the line and holding the point of attack. For all its throw-it-all-over mentality, Baylor still relies heavily on the run, and uses it to set-up the pass and play action. Shaq Rowell, Will Clarke, Dontrill Hyman and the second half of the two-deep haven’t truly gotten the press deserved this week. Being able to hold a point and get leverage on the ball is key. The run must be limited, with all that entails about tackling, good hand placement, technique, etc. Rowell has said that pressure will be paramount, but it must be timely pressure that doesn’t absolutely sacrifice run fit.
Which leads to the second aspect defensively: Making Petty uncomfortable. That might mean getting a hand up if a lineman can’t get into the backfield to better limit a passing lane. It might mean at least forcing him to slide, to move, to not be able to simply sit and distribute the football. As West Virginia’s secondary showed against Oklahoma State, they are better, but still not fully capable of often creating coverage sacks. Cowboy receivers often ran free deep, and a handful of plays were missed merely because OSU quarterback J.W. Walsh struggled delivering the deep pass. WVU has to make Petty, a pocket passer, move his feet and at least throw on the run, if not finish with blitzes or at least knockdowns – the latter of which necessitates extreme discipline because officiating crews are itching to throw flags for hands to the face, helmet to helmet contact and roughing the passer penalties.
Get pressure, but get it in an intelligent manner with proper angles and fit ups in the run first, then a collapse of the pocket with discipline. It’s a tough mix, that sense of urgency and discipline. West Virginia’s open field display was as good as I can recently recall in regards to it. The Mountaineers were sure to run Walsh, and others, out of bounds, but never once came closer to hitting a player late or taking a little swipe at or putting a shoulder into an offensive player that could draw a flag. That’s extreme discipline in the face of the pressure, which mounted all day on the defense. It was, in my opinion, among the most impressive of hallmarks under coordinator Keith Patterson. And it must continue in a hostile night environment this week.
Onto linebacker play. West Virginia is still lacking the speed to cover receivers if Jared Barber mans the will slot for a beat-up Nick Kwaitkoski. It’s not Barber’s fault; he’s simply limited in pass coverage skills more than his counterpart, who is expected to play against Baylor. Kwiatkoski gives West Virginia better range, but the Mountaineers are still a step slower than the staff likely prefers. That will mean swarming after the catch and solid tackling will be paramount. Baylor isn’t as big a misdirection or option team as Oklahoma State, but getting the explosive wideouts and Seastrunk on the ground effectively will go a long way to creating beneficial down-distance situations.
In the secondary, along with as difficult as coverage assignments as the Mountaineers will face this season, must be disciplined. If Seastrunk starts ripping off chunks, the natural temptation is to begin to play run first. That cannot happen. The corners and safeties – who, players said, will likely use more zone this week – must keep their heads out of the backfield and focus on assignment football. Neither Goodley or Reese is quite the deep threat as was Terrance Williams – a third-round Dallas Cowboys draft pick – but Goodley, especially, has a rare blend of strength and physicality that creates difficult match-ups. If he and Karl Joseph get a chance to crack heads in the open field, it’ll be interesting to see which player gets the better end.
Baylor’s wideouts have among the widest splits in the game. If the ball is centered on the field, the Bears routinely place both receivers on each side of the formation outside the hash marks. That serves a twofold purpose. First, it further stretches a defense already thinned by the spread look. And second, it gives a bit more room to work on the interior which is beneficial because Baylor’s outside wideouts are usually the deeper threats. West Virginia will be forced to cover much open ground, and it’s safeties will have to play assignment football and not allow Petty to slide them all over the field with his first read. The initial look won’t often be where the ball is delivered, because that is what West Virginia wants to take away. Stay in position and break when needed.
Communication is also key. The corners and safeties must understand when and how to drop thee wideouts off to one another, and who is covering what portions of the field. That can become difficult in a spread team with mesh and tree-pattern sets, and midrange completions won’t be uncommon. What WVU must avoid is a tendency to become frustrated and try to react early, or make a big play. If the Mountaineers can force Baylor into long drives, using the bend-don’t-break, that’s far preferable to giving up the big play. Turnover chances will come, but they must come organically and not because of a push. Blow an assignment, and this team will put six up.
Bottom line: Shuffle effectively, don’t get turned around and keep after the play to limit yards after the catch as much as possible. West Virginia badly struggled with proper angles last season, and nothing magnified that like the performances against Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. WVU seems to have shored that up adequately, but if there’s one team that has the talent to make defenders look silly, it’s Baylor.
West Virginia has had net punting advantages much of this season. That should be negated this week with BU’s Rosh Spencer, who sports a 48.6-yard average compared to WVU punter Nick O’Toole’s 44.9. O’Toole, however, has far more punts than Spencer, who has averaged just 2.3 per game. With that positive net possibly not in the offering, the Mountaineers must find a more fundamentally sound returner that what Ronald Carswell has shown. Jordan Thompson showed flashes, but, as Holgorsen point out, that position will be well worked this week in trying to find a sure answer. Kickoff, conversely, has been opened up to all competition after WVU’s return average was far less than expected. Baylor, for playing its inferior competition, hasn’t truly busted big returns consistently, and with both clubs having solid placekickers and covering kicks well, this area should be a push. If you’re a Mountaineer fan, you’re likely to embrace that.
Perhaps more difficult to predict or pinpoint this week is how the Mountaineer offense will match-up with Baylor because there’s no set quarterback. No player more affects the stylings of WVU than its signal caller, and, at least of Wednesday, nary a word has been said about who, of Clint Trickett, Ford Childress or Paul Millard, would play other than Holgorsen noting that it would depend upon the percentages of health and what player could best perform. Let’s be clear: Millard is the third-teamer and will play only if Trickett and Childress are likely less than 70 percent. The bet here is Trickett will play, and so we’ll take a look at that – and really, the biggest difference between the two is just the bit-slower-then-Childress communication and that Trickett extends plays. Childress likely throws the fade with better touch, and has a stronger arm overall, but the remainder is just about a push.
Trickett, as Baylor head coach Art Briles pointed out, gave the Mountaineers a spark, and has by far the best scrambling ability. He made poor decisions on a couple balls downfield, throwing into coverage. His decision making should be improved, but it’s a sizable start at night on the road, and the thinking here is West Virginia’s run game must support its signal caller. WVU has set its line with Nick Kindler, Quinton Spain, Pat Eger, Mark Glowinski and Curtis Feigt, according to offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. Glowinski, especially, has struggled, and Eger’s snapping is still leaving much to be desired. Besides those issues, Baylor is vastly improved since last year at this time, and really began to come on defensively in the latter stages of last season, including a Holiday Bowl win in which it held an emerging UCLA offense to 26 points.
Baylor has eight starters back, but, as the coaches have noted on both sides, getting extensive film on the Bears has been difficult because they’ve essentially played about a half of three games. There are maybe 50-60 snaps of plays where Baylor is going full bore, and, on both sides of the ball, WVU players have said almost all the players have been quite vanilla. BU has revealed zero of their schemes, and that’s caused Dawson to go diving into stacks of snaps from last season, which works better for him than defensive coordinator Keith Patterson because of the lesser turnover. West Virginia, meanwhile, has revealed much of what it does, giving Baylor an edge.
The Bears can bring pressure from all over, and have gotten much better on the back end. In addition to effort and execution up front, hitting the midrange and deep ball is imperative to keep the secondary from creeping up. Those deep balls will also create some added room for Trickett to scramble, and he will need to use his feet to help the line and perhaps grab some key yardage and keep the distances manageable for a run game that has been solid but sans and really big plays. How Baylor approaches defending an offense with which its quite familiar will be interesting to watch in the first few series. Do the Bears play zone? Do they have enough confidence in the secondary to go man and place more pressure on the pocket and WVU’s run game? Are they blitz-oriented, or would they rather keep Trickett contained and force him to throw to win?
As much as perhaps any game this season, West Virginia is facing serious talent with serious unknowns. It outman some foes and had the confidence that others, like Oklahoma, would lean on the run. And at least with Oklahoma State, WVU could watch what it did in the opener against Mississippi State in a somewhat tight 21-3 game. The first few series will be a feeling out time for Dawson, and then the Mountaineers can begin to hone in on what might be successful. Check the run-pass balance and how West Virginia is challenging the Baylor defense, then see if that changes from the first 20 plays to the next 20. WVU has some match-ups it can win in the pass game, and it should be able to at least adequately move the ball. But it’s also likely to be surprised by some blitzes and looks from Baylor, and will have to feel its way through the game and make solid adjustments as needed perhaps more than in most contests.