By Cam Huffman
The game that West Virginia football fans have had circled on their calendars since the schedule was released is finally here.
The No. 8 Mountaineers (4-0) will be in Austin, Texas, tonight to take on No. 11 Texas (4-0) to get a taste of what life on the road in the Big 12 is really like.
WANT TO WATCH?
Tonight’s contest will be a FOX national broadcast, beginning at 7 p.m.
THE EYES OF TEXAS ARE UPON THE MOUNTAINEERS
Although ESPN’s College GameDay made the decision to head to Columbia, S.C., for the big SEC showdown between South Carolina and Georgia tonight, there’s plenty of national attention on the WVU-Texas matchup.
It’s FOX’s top game, and ESPN television and radio have been focused on the showdown all week. Dana Holgorsen has been a hot commodity on radio shows across the country, and Geno Smith is at the top of almost every list of Heisman Trophy candidates.
WHAT THIS MEANS
Many feel this will be the de facto Big 12 championship. Oklahoma was picked to win the conference in the preseason, but the Sooners lost their Big 12 opener, changing the perception. WVU, picked No. 2 in the preseason, and Texas are now two of the favorites, along with Kansas State, the team that knocked off Oklahoma.
Both the Mountaineers and Longhorns are among the top offenses in the country, with each averaging more than 47 points and 545 yards of offense per game.
Historically, this is a huge game for WVU as it’s the Mountaineers’ first Big 12 road game. WVU won its first Big 12 game last week, knocking off Baylor 70-63, but this will be the first time in school history the Mountaineers will play in front of a crowd of more than 100,000 fans.
Individually, this is a huge game for Smith if he hopes to be in the battle for college football’s top award at the end of the year. His numbers through the first four games — 1,728 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and zero interceptions — speak for themselves, but putting up similar numbers against a big national name like Texas could turn a few more heads.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
J.D. Woods, WR — On most teams, Woods would be a star. He’s fifth in the Big 12 with 6.8 receptions per game. But on a team with the top two pass catchers in the league — Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey — he sometimes gets overlooked.
Woods, though, is critical to the WVU offense. As defenses turn their attention to the top two, Woods will get more and more balls thrown his way and could join the list of the other Mountaineer stars.
Terence Garvin, LB — Garvin is second in the league with four sacks, and he’s also recovered a fumble. WVU is likely to try to pressure QB David Ash, who has been prone to mistakes in past years, and Garvin could be a big part of that game plan.
David Ash, QB — The Longhorns’ sophomore signal caller was considered somewhat of a liability last year, but he’s made major strides this season and has actually become a weapon. He’s completed 85 of 109 passes for 1,007 yards, but, more importantly, he’s thrown 10 touchdowns compared to just one interception.
Alex Okafor, DE — A legitimate NFL prospect, Okafor is tied with Garvin at second in the conference with four sacks, one ahead of teammate Jacks Jeffcoat, who mans the other end of the Texas defensive front. He’ll try to force Smith into bad decisions for the first time all year.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The objective for Texas is clear. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has readily admitted that he knows he can’t stop the Mountaineers. The key is to slow them down, get a few stops and make Smith and company earn their points. Big plays could lead to a shootout, and that’s the last thing the Longhorns want. They’ve already allowed five touchdowns of 44 yards or longer this year.
That strategy will also be noticeable on offense, where Texas will attempt to establish a ground game, control the football and keep the WVU offense standing on the sidelines. That could be a little more difficult, though, with starting running back Malcolm Brown out with an ankle injury.
For WVU it’s all about the defense. The Mountaineers are confident they can score points on anybody, including Texas. The key will be picking up the blitz and getting rid of the football early. Smith isn’t going to be able to sit back in the pocket for seven or eight seconds as he did last week.
Defensively, though, there has to be an improvement. No matter how good the offense is, WVU can’t expect to win many games when it gives up 63 points. It’s simply not going to score 70 every time out.
It would be foolish to expect this defense to suddenly transform into the Steelers’ Steel Curtain of the ’70s, but it does need to find a way to create a couple of turnovers and get off the field when it gets Texas in a third-and-long situation.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on the WVU defense — “We always look to make changes if we need to. College football is what it is. We can’t call somebody and ask for a trade or try to pick someone up off of waivers. Those are guys that have played around here for a long time. We have to get them better.”
Texas head coach Mack Brown on Geno Smith — “He seems smart. He’s composed. He has all the pressure of trying to win the Heisman, handle all the stuff. He seems to handle it with poise and grace all the time. But boy is he good.”
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