MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. You can also read more about Mountaineer football at Jed’s website http://thesignalcaller.com. You can also follow Jed on Twitter: @TheSignalCaller
It was Oct. 6, 1866.
A dark autumn evening in Seymour, Ind. - a town of about 1,500 that was booming with commercial activity as a result of the two major railways that intersected on its outskirts. Brothers John and Simeon Reno, a pair of bounty jumpers in the recently concluded Civil War, boarded an east-bound Ohio & Mississippi train in the company of a man named Frank Sparks.
The three masked men moved with purpose to the express car. Accounts vary on the actual score and specifics of the robbery, but while holding the messenger at gunpoint, the bandits opened one safe and bagged the money then forced a larger, more secure second safe from the train. With that, one of the men tugged the bell rope to signal the engineer to come to a stop. As the train slowed its pace, the three men leapt into the night and history had been made. The Reno gang had pulled off the first heist of a moving train in U.S. history.
Such was life on the Western Frontier in 19th Century America. The Old West was known for many things but among them perhaps nothing fires the imagination more than train robberies and gun fights.
It’s fitting, then, that nearly a century-and-a-half later on Oct. 6 – the anniversary of that first caper on a moving train – that West Virginia makes its maiden voyage into the wild environs of what some have called the ‘American Frontier League,’ poised for what pundits are expecting to be another classic Big 12 shootout.
Saturday, of course, won’t mark the first gridiron meeting between West Virginia and Texas. That took place some 56 years ago, also on Oct. 6. On that 85-degree afternoon in Austin, Art Lewis’ Mountaineers edged the Longhorns 7-6 en route to a fourth consecutive Southern Conference crown.
Based on the over/under figures coming out of Las Vegas this week, the odds makers aren’t quite expecting the same level of defensive punch this time around. Points might not be at quite the premium they were in 1956 – although they will almost certainly be tougher to come by than they were in WVU’s 70-63 win over Baylor last Saturday.
Or will they?
“Our pass defense was atrocious,” said Dana Holgorsen this week, mincing no words about the performance of a West Virginia defense that was stung by the highest point total the Mountaineers have allowed since watching Michigan score 130 in 1904.
So erratic was the play of the West Virginia defense that not a soul among the 60,000 on hand was at ease, even when Andrew Buie
scooted in from a yard out to extend WVU’s lead to 21 late in the third quarter. Baylor validated those anxieties by reaching the end zone on each of its final four possessions. Sure, Geno Smith
was enjoying a day for the ages, but Baylor’s senior signal caller Nick Florence wasn’t far behind - playing pitch and catch with man-beast Terrance Williams all afternoon to do their part in making last week’s contest the highest scoring in WVU history.
Yes, the Big 12 is different than what West Virginia fans are accustomed to - very different, in fact. But not quite as different as that track meet last Saturday made it seem.
If you’re under the impression that defensively the Mountaineers will soon hit the ‘reset’ button and once again start consistently holding the opposition to 315 yards per game (as it did over the last five years), or 21 points per outing (as it did over the last 20 years), don’t hold your breath. Times have changed, but more importantly, so have the surroundings.
This is where the reality of the Big 12 as an offensive juggernaut with no equal really starts to set in. After tangling with a Baylor team that stepped off the bus at Milan Puskar Stadium already averaging 51 points per game, West Virginia now prepares to face an explosive list of opponents averaging 47, 44, 41, 32, 56 and 37 points.
A compelling argument can be made that no Mountaineer defense in history has been handed a more daunting and extensive challenge. But that’s the rub of it all – the fact that this is nothing exceptional in the Big 12. It’s simply business as usual.
Simply put, for defenses trying to prepare week in and week out, there aren’t many empty chairs to be found on a Big 12 schedule.
By way of comparison, consider the stiffest offensive challenges faced by some of the best WVU defenses in recent memory. For instance, explore the competition faced by the 2010 unit that finished No. 3 in the country in points allowed, led by standouts J.T. Thomas, Bruce Irvin and Brandon Hogan. Statistically the most potent offense West Virginia teed off against that year was – wait for it – the Maryland Terrapins. That’s right. In Ralph Friedgen’s swan song season, the Terps managed 32 points per outing to finish 29th nationally making them, from a scoring standpoint, the stiffest test the Mountaineers faced that fall.
How about the vaunted 1996 WVU defense that finished No. 1 in the nation in yards allowed? That unit was populated with playmakers at every turn, from Canute Curtis and John Thornton to Gary Stills and Mike Logan. What kind of offensive competition was that defense tasked with stopping? In ‘96 the Mountaineers faced only three teams that averaged 30 points per game, including Miami, Fla. (31 ppg.), North Carolina (31 ppg.) and a Syracuse squad that scored at a clip of 37 points per contest, led by sophomore Donovan McNabb. That’s hardly the seven or more teams averaging 30-plus that WVU figures to face in conference play this season.
I point these things out not to slight two of the most opportunistic, talented and well coached defenses in WVU history, but to provide some perspective on the unparalleled challenges West Virginia will face defensively as it moves forward in the Big 12 - not just this season but in the seasons to come. This also isn’t to suggest that the Big East at large was barren of offensive talent. Even in recent years, the Mountaineers faced plenty of standouts in league play - from LeSean McCoy and Donald Brown to Larry Fitzgerald and Ray Rice and on down the line. But for every bona fide offensive stud the Big East offered up, it always seemed to follow with two underwhelming duds.
That’s not the case in the Big 12 where on an unfailing basis the life of defensive coaches is replete with more high adventure than an Indiana Jones matinee. Look ahead at the WVU schedule in the upcoming weeks: Texas, Texas Tech, Kansas State, TCU, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Where’s the break? Where’s the Rutgers team struggling to find its running game or an inability to protect its quarterback? Where’s the UConn team struggling to find its passing game? Where’s the South Florida team struggling to hold onto the football?
They’re gone, replaced by a hoard of razor-eyed signal callers, pulsating play makers and innovative play callers. Seven of WVU’s nine conference opponents have erupted for 59 or more points at least once in the last year, the other two having scored 44 or more. What does it say about the depth of a league’s offenses when the team ranking last in the conference in scoring (Kansas) is the one run by a Super Bowl winning play caller?
Last weekend, the Mountaineers tangled with a fantastically deep Baylor receiving corps that featured no fewer than four players with more than 1,000 career receiving yards. This week, West Virginia tries to corral a Texas offense that showcases a ground game with more rushing touchdowns than top-ranked Alabama and which is led by the nation’s second-most efficient passer. The challenges will keep coming and coming and coming. By season’s end, the WVU defense will have crossed swords with a 4,000-yard passer from a year ago (TTU’s Seth Doege); offenses that have scored 84 (OSU), 69 (OU) and 66 (Texas) points; a Heisman candidate that accounted for 40 scores last season (K-State’s Collin Klein); a team with a streak of scoring 30-plus points that’s currently 22 games long (OSU) and the sixth-leading passer in the history of college football (Landry Jones).
It’s hard to blame Big 12 defensive coaches for deflecting the focus from yards (and even points) allowed to more achievable goals like sacks, tackles for loss, third down stops and of course turnovers.
“Our top priority is to get the ball back in the hands of our offense as quickly as possible,” WVU co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said during the offseason. “Dana Holgorsen and all these spread offense guys -- they’ve changed the way you measure success on defense.”
You might not be able to shut down the Big 12’s high octane offenses for the balance of 60 minutes, but what you can do is derail them at crucial intervals in a game to put the football back in the hands of your own quarterback and company.
The straw that stirs the drink in this avant-garde defensive philosophy so common now in the Big 12 is the ability to generate turnovers. It's not unlike those tabloid magazines that publish photos of Hollywood’s elite without their cosmetics applied. That’s what many Big 12 defenses look like when they hit a turnover drought. When you face so many capable offenses and the takeaways dry up, all that’s left for the world to see is an unflattering stat sheet fattened by hefty point and yardage totals. Turnovers are the makeup concealing the ugly blemishes of big plays and touchdowns surrendered.
When the turnovers come in bunches, all else is forgiven. No one in Stillwater remembers that Oklahoma State allowed 500-plus yards four times in its final six games last year – including 622 to Baylor. Nor do Pokes fans recall that OSU yielded 37-plus points three times in its final five outings. What they do remember is that Oklahoma State led the nation with 44 takeaways and won the league for the first time since the bicentennial.
Realizing that takeaways could play a pivotal role in Saturday’s game in Austin is one thing; guessing which team that might favor is something else entirely. After turning the football over a combined 106 times the last two years (Texas 56, WVU 50), the Mountaineers and Longhorns share a rebirth as two of college football’s most ball security-conscious teams. Over the course of 2010-11, Texas averaged one turnover lost every 33 offensive plays while West Virginia averaged one turnover lost every 37 plays. Through four games this year, however, the Horns have suffered just two turnovers (in 294 plays) while the Mountaineers have committed only one turnover (an interception thrown by back-up Paul Millard
in mop up duty versus Marshall) in 304 snaps.
With a risk taker in Manny Diaz calling the defenses and a road grading offensive line paving the way for a stockpile of talent at the skill positions, Texas will challenge the Mountaineers on both sides of the football in a way they haven’t been challenged since the LSU game last season.
The question is: how will West Virginia respond under the glow of the national spotlight in front of a six-figure crowd and in one of college football’s most storied venues?
How will they react when the train pulls out of the depot and the masked marauders in orange barge into the express car? Unlike the unsuspecting messenger victimized by the Reno gang on that East-bound iron horse in 1866, the Mountaineers are West-bound and well prepared.
And something tells me they have a musket up their sleeve!
See you at the fifty.