<
>

West Virginia Mountaineers preview

5d
Dana Holgorsen needs to find a quarterback to continue West Virginia's momentum. AP Photo/Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Tori Eichberger

After a 4–8 campaign in 2013, WVU took a big step forward last year, notching its first winning season since joining the Big 12 in 2012. Many of coach Dana Holgorsen’s key starters return, but there are holes to fill—most notably at quarterback.

Offense

How the Mountaineers beat you: Holgorsen likes to combine a solid ground game (second in the Big 12 in rushes last year) with an up-tempo pass attack. That balance allows his squad to take advantage of what the opponent’s defense allows. Running backs Rushel Shell (788 rush yards, 7 TDs) and Wendell Smallwood (1,057 all-purpose yards) will get plenty of touches, particularly with a first-year quarterback—most likely Skyler Howard—under center. Figure the S&S duo to be the foundation of the offense, so one of the keys to offensive success will be how easily the new QB can capitalize when defenses clamp down on the run game.

How you beat the Mountaineers: Holgorsen’s offense puts a lot of responsibility on the quarterback to make good, quick decisions, both before and after the snap. That sometimes allows aggressive, blitzing defenses to have success against WVU, particularly when Holgorsen’s offense is breaking in an inexperienced signal-caller. If the QB doesn’t succeed in getting rid of the ball? Turnovers prompted WVU’s slide down the Big 12 standings last November— the team’s minus-15 TO margin on the season was worst in the Big 12, as was its 19 lost fumbles. If that isn’t fixed, turnovers could easily doom the Mountaineers again.

Defense

How the Mountaineers beat you: The defense likes to challenge teams in one-on-one situations, particularly on the outside. Pressure on the QB and receivers resulted in teams completing just 53 percent of passes against the Mountaineers last season, second best in the Big 12. Opponents that can’t easily handle that pressure or coordinated chaos won’t like facing this defense. “We were very effective at times, even if we never got to the quarterback,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson says. “It was the illusion of how many guys we were bringing, and we spooked the quarterback to where he was getting rid of the ball quick.”

How you beat the Mountaineers: Opponents can take advantage of the same one-on-one opportunities for their running backs and receivers against a defense that struggled with missed tackles in 2014. “We tackled really well at times, and other times we were really bad,” Gibson says. Indeed, his defense was hit or miss, recording 70 or more tackles in four games and fewer than 55 in four others. More experience from a mostly intact line should help with consistency, but WVU also needs to improve against the rush: The Mountaineers are just 2–10 in games when they’ve allowed 200 rushing yards or more since joining the Big 12.