Some weekend thoughts, observations and musings as we get ready to flip the calendar to 2014 ...
- There are many reasons why Baylor went from a middle-of-the-pack Big 12 team in 2012 to the conference champion and Fiesta Bowl participant this season, but perhaps the biggest is the improvement the Bears have made on defense, specifically their pass defense.
Last year Baylor ranked ninth in the Big 12 in pass defense giving up more than 325 yards per game in conference play. A year later, Baylor made a dramatic improvement by surrendering less than 215 yards per game. Why? More experience, better players and fewer top-shelf quarterbacks in the Big 12 probably helped - that, and a much better pass rush. The Bears finished the regular season third in the conference in sacks this year averaging 2.44 per game in league play.
I only mention that because a pass rush has been something sorely missing from West Virginia's defensive repertoire the last few years. For the second straight season the Mountaineers ranked last in the Big 12 in sacks, getting to the opposing QB 16 times in 2013, including just 10 sacks in nine Big 12 games.
That is nine fewer than the 23 sacks generated last year, and 25 fewer than West Virginia had in 2010 when BRUCE IRVIN was still stalking quarterbacks for the Mountaineers. I know lock-down corners and head-hunting safeties are always coveted on signing day, but finding someone who can consistently get to the passer could do wonders for a WVU pass defense that has gotten better, but still has a ways to go.
Perhaps that guy is already here in the Puskar Center getting ready for winter conditioning when the team returns from Christmas break in January. I sure hope so.
- For those of us who spend time researching the history of Mountaineer football, defending the pass has ALWAYS been an Achilles heel for WVU through the years.
Exhibit A. was the 1954 Sugar Bowl when a much more athletic Georgia Tech team was able to take advantage of the bigger and much slower Mountaineers. Same thing in the 1960s when West Virginia went up against the likes of Navy, Oregon State, Penn State and Oregon.
In the 1970s, when BOBBY BOWDEN was running the program and West Virginia was more familiar with the passing game, that still didn't stop guys like Temple's STEVE JOACHIM, Richmond's HARRY KNIGHT and Penn State's JOHN HUFNAGEL from wearing out the Mountaineers.
In the 1980s it was DOUG FLUTIE, JOHN CONGEMI, VINNY TESTAVERDE, DON MCPHERSON, ALEX VAN PELT and whoever BOBBY ROSS started at QB when he was coaching the Terps.
In the 1990s it was GINO TORRETTA, GLENN FOLEY, SCOTT MILANOVICH, JOHN RYAN, JEFF BROHM and DONOVAN MCNABB doing the long distance bombing.
More recently, guys like KEN DORSEY, SCOTT MCBRIEN, BRIAN BROHM and ROD RUTHERFORD did it, and today, it's SETH DOEGE, NICK FLORENCE, LANDRY JONES and BRYCE PETTY who have made our weekends miserable.
- Running back Charles Sims now makes it 10 consecutive years that West Virginia has sent at least one player to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. The streak began back in 2004 when linebacker GRANT WILEY was invited to play in college football’s top all-star game.
West Virginia has had 19 players invited to play in the Senior Bowl since then, although last year quarterback GENO SMITH declined his invitation and offensive lineman JOEY MADSEN went in his place.
- GENO will be making his South Florida homecoming on Sunday when the Jets wrap up the regular season against Miami. The last time Geno was on the field at Sun Life Stadium he had a pretty fair night against the Clemson Tigers. If you are a Pittsburgh Steelers fan you are certainly rooting for another one of those big-time performances on Sunday from Mr. Smith.
By the way, he needs just 144 yards against the Dolphins to reach 3,000 yards passing for the season.
Meanwhile, hopefully TAVON AUSTIN's ankle will be ready to go for the Rams' season finale against Seattle on Sunday. Tavon has had a pretty good rookie season with 40 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns, and he is also 10th in the NFL in punt return yardage. Austin has scored six TDs three different ways this season.
- Syracuse, with the 78th-best recruiting class in the nation in 2010, the 76th-best recruiting class in 2011, the 66th-best recruiting class in 2012 and the 74th-best recruiting class last February (according to Rivals) has now won back-to-back bowl games and three out of its last four after Friday's come-from-behind victory over stuck-in-the-mud Minnesota in the Texas Bowl.
I wonder if JIM BOEHEIM could pull off something like that with the Syracuse hoops team, considering he gets the pick of the litter each year.
- I usually don’t make it a habit to wish on Pitt players but wouldn’t it have been nice to see TYLER BOYD in a West Virginia uniform. If you recall, the Mountaineers were among the final three choices for Boyd last winter before the Clairton, Pa. resident chose the Panthers.
In Thursday night’s 30-27 victory over Bowling Green in the Little Caesar’s Bowl in Detroit, the Panther freshman caught eight passes for 173 yards while also returning three punts for 69 yards. For the season, Boyd caught 85 passes for 1,174 yards and seven touchdowns and also ran 11 times for 108 yards and another score.
Since the two schools no longer play each other at least the Mountaineers don't have to come up with a game plan to defend him. If they were still playing, though, Boyd would rank right up there with LARRY FITZGERALD, ANTONIO BRYANT, DIETRICH JELLS and JULIUS DAWKINS among the great Pitt receivers WVU used to face on a yearly basis.
I'm sure Pitt fans felt the same way about having to play against MAJOR HARRIS, MARC BULGER, MIKE LOGAN, RASHEED MARSHALL, CHARLES FISHER and some of the other area guys who enjoyed great success in Morgantown through the years.
Speaking of Panther wide outs, can you guess which one had the best-ever receiving performance against the Mountaineers?
If you said JELLS you would be correct. He caught five passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns in West Virginia’s wild, 47-41 victory over the Panthers at Pitt Stadium on Oct. 15, 1994.
Fitzgerald, too, had tremendous games against WVU, producing nine catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns in 2003 and 11 catches for 159 yards and two TDs in 2002 – both games West Virginia won.
- Your Big 12 Bowl Watching Guide for 2013
Saturday, Dec. 28
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl
Kansas State vs. Michigan (ESPN)
Monday, Dec. 30
Valero Alamo Bowl
Texas vs. Oregon (ESPN)
Texas Tech vs. Arizona State (ESPN)
Wednesday, Jan. 1
Baylor vs. Central Florida (ESPN)
Thursday, Jan. 2
Oklahoma vs. Alabama (ESPN)
Friday, Jan. 3
Oklahoma State vs. Missouri (FOX)
Those clearly are some pretty interesting bowl match ups.
- Here is an interesting note ... Just three Big 12 teams have seniors starting at quarterback this year - Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas. Also, four unranked teams knocked off ranked opponents in conference play this season, including West Virginia's 30-21 victory over 11th-ranked Oklahoma State on Sept. 28.
- West Virginia will have two of the conference's top 15 tacklers returning in 2014 in linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski (fifth) and Jared Barber (12th), and three of the top 30 if you add safety Karl Joseph (28th).
Offensively, junior college wide receiver Mario Alford came on like gangbusters over the final third of the season when he was moved out of the slot with 62 yards receiving against TCU, 97 yards against Texas, 76 yards against Kansas and 215 yards against Iowa State. The 5-foot-9-inch Alford will certainly be a big part of West Virginia's offensive plans in 2014.
Another thing to keep in mind: West Virginia had the eighth youngest two-deep roster in the country this year when the Mountaineers started the season. And several more youngsters saw the field as the season wore on.
Enjoy your weekend!
Mike Carey: Big 12 Tournament Preview
Bob Huggins: Kansas Preview
Players: Spring Football Update
Craig Turnbull: Big 12 Championships Preview
Shannon Dawson: QB and WRs Update