By Cam Huffman
Marshall may have been a little better than it was in 2011. James Madison was strong for a Football Championship Subdivision squad, and Maryland seems to be getting better as the season progresses.
But No. 9 West Virginia (3-0) didn’t see anything in wins over those three squads like it will see today when No. 25 Baylor (3-0) and its offense, averaging 51.3 points and 568.7 yards per game, visits Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium for WVU’s Big 12 debut.
“We need to do a good job, because they are a quality football team,” said Mountaineer head coach Dana Holgorsen. “They have won nine games in a row.
“I have personally competed against Baylor nine times. I know a lot about them, and I worked with coach (Art) Briles for three years.”
Holgorsen — who has a capable offense of his own, which is averaging 47.3 points and 529 yards per game — has a policy of never labeling any game as more important than any other, but he admitted it’s important to get off to a good start in conference play.
“Our goal in the beginning of the season, and I think this is the same goal for everyone that competes in college football, is to win the conference,” he said. “If you win your conference, especially the Big 12 Conference, then you go to a BCS game and there is the potential of playing for a national championship.
“This is step one in achieving that goal. It is conference time; each and every game is important.”
WANT TO GO?
You better have tickets in hand or a pocket full of cash. The game is officially a sellout. Tickets on the online site StubHub! are selling for anywhere from $100 to $175.
WANT TO WATCH?
The game, scheduled for a noon kickoff, will air live on the FX television network.
The WVU athletic department is making an effort to “Stripe the Stadium” for today’s homecoming game. Fans sitting in even-numbered sections are encouraged to wear gold, while fans in odd-numbered sections are asked to wear blue.
FIND YOUR SEATS
If you’re a fan of country music, or perhaps NBC’s “The Celebrity Apprentice,” you’ll want to be in your seats in time for the national anthem, which will be performed by Trace Adkins.
According to Weather.com, temperatures at game time will be in the mid-60s under partly cloudy skies. There is only a 10 percent chance of rain.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Shawne Alston, RB — The Mountaineers’ senior running back was extremely limited last week with a thigh bruise, but he’s expected to be ready for today’s game. With WVU determined to run the football for some balance, and Baylor’s rush defense ranked ninth out of 10 Big 12 teams, Alston could have a big afternoon.
Darwin Cook, DB — WVU’s junior safety has forced two fumbles in three games to go along with 15 tackles. He’s figuring more and more into the Mountaineers’ blitz packages, in addition to his ability to find the football in the secondary.
Nick Florence, QB — Facing the unenviable task of replacing Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III in the Bears’ high-powered offense, Florence has performed above expectations. He’s behind only WVU’s Geno Smith in passing yards per game, averaging 334.7 yards per contest. Combined with his 159 rushing yards on the year, he’s the Big 12’s leader in total offense.
Bryce Hager, LB — The sophomore is the Big 12’s leader with 39 tackles in three games. He’s also forced a pair of fumbles.
KEYS TO THE GAME
With two of the best offenses in the country on the field, the game is likely to come down to turnovers and special teams.
The two teams have punted a combined 17 times in 24 quarters of action, but if they do ever kick it away, punters Spencer Roth (Baylor) and Corey Smith (WVU) have to do their jobs well. Neither team wants to make the opposing offense’s job any easier with a short field.
If Holgorsen or Briles decides to settle for a field goal on a drive, kickers Aaron Jones (Baylor) and Tyler Bitancurt (WVU) can’t miss, as every point is going to be critical.
Perhaps the most important statistic, though, will be turnovers. It’s going to be a difficult task for the defenses to stop either offense from marching down the field, so both teams will be doing their best to get the football free.
Baylor has turned it over four times in three games, while the Mountaineers have lost it only once. The Bears, though, have forced 10 turnovers, compared to just six for WVU.
The team that gives the ball away will likely also hand over its undefeated record.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen — “We are really not going to do a whole lot different. I think over the course of time, West Virginia, our football team and everyone else will get more familiar with the Big 12 and the Big 12 will get familiar with West Virginia. But I think it is going to take games for that to happen.”
Baylor head coach Art Briles — “They are going to have a good stadium. It’s not like it’s going to be a big first-time deal for them. They have been doing things right up there for a long time. The only significance is that it’s their first Big 12 game.”