The Difficult Road
It's been said that if the road is easy, you're likely going the wrong way.
That notion should bring a smile to the face of West Virginia fans in search of optimism as the Mountaineers prepare to march into Waco, Texas Saturday night as four-touchdown underdogs. Sure, Art Briles's unbeaten squad boasts the top-ranked scoring offense (69.7/game) and No. 2 ranked scoring defense (7.7/game) in the nation, but there's one thing West Virginia can lean on that Baylor has not experienced during its unblemished start.
It's something the Mountaineers have had plenty of and something the Bears have yet to feel.
While Baylor spent its opening day of the season dismantling Wofford 69-3, West Virginia had to crawl on its stomach through broken glass to overcome a 17-7 deficit in its opener to beat William & Mary. As the Bears dropped 56 first half points on Buffalo in a 70-13 week 2 blowout, the Mountaineers rebounded from a loss at Oklahoma with an uneven performance against an overmatched Georgia State squad that didn't really go as expected until three fourth-quarter touchdowns helped WVU separate decisively. While Baylor erupted on UL-Monroe with 5 touchdowns in the first 13 minutes of a 70-7 win in week 3, West Virginia got ambushed by Maryland in a 37-0 disaster in Baltimore.
The loss to the Terrapins was the kind of soul-shaking demolition that might cause many teams to wilt. Instead, just seven days later, the Mountaineers lifted themselves off the mat to stun the Big 12 with an upset win over an 11th-ranked Oklahoma State team that was the preseason favorite to win the league.
No moment better represented West Virginia's resolve in that gritty performance than a key exchange early in the fourth quarter. With the Mountaineers clinging to a narrow 24-21 lead, the Cowboys reached the WVU seven-yard line and appeared to be stopped on third down until a penalty moved the ball half the distance to the goal and awarded OSU with a new set of downs. Typically those are the kinds of mistakes you can't make against a good team, especially a team with the most lethal red zone offense in college football – an offense that had scored 15 touchdowns on 15 trips. But this day was anything but typical.
West Virginia needed a break and, heeding the advice of Dana Holgorsen during his halftime remarks to the team in the locker room, they went out and created one. Or two. Or three.
Keith Patterson's defense bowed up. On first down, OSU's Jeremy Smith was met with vicious force at the one-yard line on a touchdown saving tackle by WVU safety Darwin Cook and linebacker Doug Rigg. Cook and Smith collided like a pair of giant hands grappling in an arm wrestling match three feet from the goal line. The play was so close to swinging either direction that Smith would’ve nudged his way into the end zone had Cook pushed with nine toes instead of all 10. On second down, Oklahoma State tossed a fade to Tracy Moore but WVU corner Travis Bell was in perfect position and broke it up. On third and goal with 10:29 to play, the Pokes lined up in “31” personnel (3 backs, 1 tight end) and motioned strong right in an attempt to match West Virginia's numbers to that side. Jeremy Smith took the handoff and quickly realized he was in a heap of trouble. West Virginia's Dontrill Hyman exploded off the outside shoulder of OSU right guard Travis Cross, freezing him like sculpted ice. Smith never had a chance. In a violent blur, Hyman made first contact with the Cowboys ball carrier five yards deep in the backfield. A heartbeat later, linebacker Jared Barber and defensive back Travis Bell joined in to help take Smith down for a loss.
On fourth down, the 23-yard field goal attempt by Ben Grogan bounced off the goal post and, just like that, the Mountaineers were the first team in 2013 to dispatch the Cowboys offense from the red zone empty handed.
What made this stand even more impressive was the fact it began when the West Virginia defense had already been on the field for 85 snaps. After more than three quarters of football on a warm afternoon at Milan Puskar Stadium, WVU defenders were sweating, they were panting and their tongues were wagging – but they dug down deep and made the plays that needed to be made.
In last Saturday’s victory – which included an early 73-yard touchdown by the Cowboys, a bruised and battered WVU quarterback and a handful of costly special teams breakdowns - West Virginia responded to incredible adversity and discovered a lot about itself as a football team. There are certain things a team can only find on the other side of hardship – and that's the beauty of adversity. For good or bad, adversity is a blast furnace that strips away the window dressing and fluff and forges you into the type of team you really are.
Holgorsen's Mountaineers have been challenged at every turn this fall. Their will has been tested. They've been knocked off script and they’ve been forced to adjust. They've tasted their own blood and they've survived to tell the tale.
Baylor - for all its staggering numbers - has not.
The Bears are averaging a shade under 70 points per outing. In just three games this year they've scored 25 offensive touchdowns and four more by the defense. Baylor features seven players who have already recorded at least one catch of 40 yards or more. And Lache Seastrunk? He's been as good as advertised, averaging more than a first down (11.0 yards) every time he runs the football. At quarterback, despite losing studs Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence in consecutive years, Baylor appears to once again be in good hands. The Bears have reached the end zone 21 times in 28 possessions with Bryce Petty under center. Just how en fuego is Petty right now? Remember that blistering hot, “the-Heisman-is-his-to-lose” start that Geno Smith enjoyed thru five games a year ago? Smith's passer rating at that point was 202.4. Petty's is – wait for it – 239.5.
This final nugget might be my favorite. It's one we've been hearing all week. So dynamic and explosive is this Baylor team that they are the first squad since the 1930 LSU Tigers to rip off 60 or more points in each of its first three games. There have been a lot of football teams play their first three games against a lot of different types of competition in the 83 years that have passed since Russ Cohen's Louisiana State team achieved that incredible feat, but only Art Briles’s Bears have managed to match it.
The numbers that Baylor are putting up command your attention. They're flashy beyond belief and impressive no matter what standard you judge them by and irrespective of the level of competition against which they’ve come. Despite all of that, the Bears still don't know what kind of football team they really are.
Why not? Because they haven’t faced adversity. Not a drop of it. That’s a realization that presents several questions. Can West Virginia deal them their first dose of it this year? How might the Bears respond if that happens? Perhaps most importantly, can this pantone green and gold freight train possibly be stopped? If so, how?
Knowing what it takes to defuse Baylor is one thing. Actually pulling it off is something else entirely.
First and foremost, you have to come out swinging – offensively and defensively. The Bears jump out of the starting blocks like no other team in the nation. West Virginia will need to survive an intense, initial salvo. With a combination of big plays offensively and takeaways defensively Baylor is generating an absurd 30 points per 1st quarter while snapping the football – on average – at a clip of once every 13 seconds on the game clock during those first 15 minutes of play. All told, the Bears have outscored the opposition 91-13 in the opening quarter. In effect, that means BU's first 3 games were over before they really even started.
Next, you have to be ready to match not just Baylor’s tempo but their actual foot speed. After getting bombed by the Bears two weeks ago, Louisiana-Monroe coach Todd Berry admitted that – despite playing Baylor to a close 47-42 finish last year – they were caught off guard by Baylor's speed this time around. Berry pointed out that one of the Warhawks cornerbacks was a 10.5 100 meter track star in high school but, when that corner had an angle on Lache Seastrunk, “Seastrunk just ran away from him.”
That's the rub. You can't let Seastrunk get going downhill.
Perhaps the biggest secret about the Bears offense has been just how instrumental a role the ground game has played in the unprecedented success they've enjoyed since late last season. Since stunning No. 1 ranked Kansas State last November, Baylor has ripped off seven straight wins. During that span they've averaged a gaudy 309 rushing yards per game – and Seastrunk has accounted for 151 of that per game.
Baylor loves to spread you out with exceptionally wide splits by their receivers, forcing you to account for their perimeter screen game and opening things up to run the inside zone - a play that takes full advantage of Seastrunk’s shiftiness and power. It’s also a play that often involves double-team blocks on the noseguard. If Shaq Rowell and company can't hold the point against left guard Cyril Richardson (regarded by some as the premier pro prospect in the country among interior linemen) and the Bears o-line, things could get dicey for the Mountaineers in a hurry.
As strange as it might sound, the West Virginia defense might be in the unenviable position of trying to force Petty, the hottest passer in the nation, to put the ball in the air. At least more often than he wants to. What we know for certain is if you let BU unleash Seastrunk and his running mates, the Bears already lethal passing game immediately becomes even more dangerous by the possibility of play action – something that’s been another key part of Art Briles’s scheme all the way back to his days at Stephenville (Texas) High in the 1990s. The truth is, with just three starts under his belt – all blowout wins - it's difficult to gauge just how much Bryce Petty does in fact rely on the Baylor ground game as a security blanket. The only way for WVU to find out is pull that blanket off and see how he reacts. Easier said than done.
And finally, here's the most obvious key. To beat Art Briles’s Bears you have to protect the football. With just three games in the books, no one knows quite yet just how much better this Baylor defense might be than last year's unit that finished dead last in the Big 12. One thing is for certain, though. They are certainly more opportunistic. Baylor ranks third in the country in turnover margin and has already recorded nine takeaways. Moreover, the Bears have taken four of those nine to the house. In point of fact, Phil Bennett's defense has scored more points itself through three games (24) than it has allowed (23). According to Brice Cherry of WacoTrib.com, dating back to last year the Bears have recorded two or more takeaways nine times in the last 10 games. Overall, Baylor has forced multiple turnovers 21 times with Bennett as coordinator and the Bears have posted a 19-2 record in those games. Ball security against this crew, as you might expect, is a must.
So here we go. Baylor is 3-0 and looks unstoppable. The Mountaineers are 3-2 but look hungry. Can West Virginia navigate the obstacles necessary to pull off another epic upset against a team enjoying the most explosive start to a college football season since the Great Depression? We'll find out soon enough, but in a feature chock-full of Cliff Clavin-like factoids, let me offer you just one more. After scoring 232 points in three games to start its season some 83 years ago, you might be wondering how that 1930 Louisiana State team fared in game 4.
They lost to South Carolina, 7-6.
I'll see you at the fifty.
West Virginia University Mountaineers, Baylor Bears, Big 12 Conference football
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United Bank Playbook
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Dana Holgorsen News Conference