We’re still at a point in the season where we still don’t know just how good many teams are. Early season expectations are drawn from the preseason poll which many call nothing more than a beauty pageant. Many teams at the top schedule cup-cake games to work out some kinks and for the chance to start out on the path to a national championship with an unblemished record heading into conference play. As the number 11 ranked Texas Longhorns are set to take on the number 8 ranked West Virginia Mountaineers, the question comes up for both teams; just how good are they?
West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith seems to set the difficulty to junior varsity (NCAA Football 2013 reference) and tear apart opposing secondaries, but as Phil Steele pointed out in his weekly bold predictions, Smith just might be a bit over hyped. While it’s blasphemous among many who moved Smith up to the top of their Heisman list with his 1,728 passing yards, zero interceptions and 83.4 completion percentage, the lackluster defenses these numbers have come against deserve an extra look.
Smith and the Mountaineer offense have looked unstoppable against FCS opponent James Madison and another two defenses ranked 119th and 124th in the nation. The Maryland Terrapins (8th in total defense nationally) are the only respectable defense the Mountaineers have come against. The Terrapins held WVU to just 24 offensive points and 363 total yards. Maryland was able to slow Smith down by maintaining tight coverage on his receivers.
The Longhorn secondary has their hands full defending Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. Both Austin and Bailey are amazing in open space. With Bailey and Austin number two and three in the nation in yards per game, Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz may not have slept great this week trying to figure out how to stop the duo. What makes Smith so dangerous is his accuracy, timing and the ability to spread the ball to four capable players. Receiver J.D. Woods and running back Andrew Blue have also combined for 40 receptions. It all comes down to pressuring Smith, communication between the Texas secondary and just remaining in position to do your job.
The LSU Tigers were able to hold the Mountaineer offense to just 21 points last season by creating turnovers on defense and controlling the game by running the ball effectively. If Diaz is searching for the perfect game plan to defend Smith and his machine of an offense, he needs to look no further then what Maryland and LSU did. Diaz’s unit has had issues with tackling. The bad tackling has resulted in giving up too many big plays.
As Shaky as the Longhorns’ defense has looked, they have only allowed nine trips inside the red zone, allowing just three touchdowns. The performance against The Oklahoma State Cowboys was ugly, but the defense did step up in key moments, giving up just two touchdowns in five bouts with the red zone. The Longhorns’ defense has far more talent than any team West Virginia has faced this season and the defensive line should be able to get the initial push at the line of scrimmage. If they can keep the pressure on Smith and disrupt his timing with his receivers, this game won’t even be a contest.
Longhorn fans can rest easy because as bad as the Horns’ defense has been, the Mountaineer defense is much worse. It’s one of the worst in the country in fact. The strength of the unit has been defending the run, but against the pass they’ve given up 352.8 yards a a game. David Ash is light years ahead of where he was a year ago. He’s commanding the offense with poise and confidence, leading the offense to convert 58% of third down conversions. He’s only thrown one interception in four games and even has a weekly Davey O’Brien award to his credit this season. Texas will be without Malcolm Brown but they still have two outstanding backs in Johnathan Gray and Joe Bergeron to control the clock.
This game is only one of many games that will help decide a wide open Big 12 race.