West Virginia’s hopes for the season are high after coming off a thrilling 43-42 win in the Cactus Bowl over Arizona State, and they welcome a hungry and talented Missouri team to Morgantown. For the first time since 1996, Mizzou opens up the season on the home field of a power conference opponent. This is the first matchup of a scheduled two-game series, and the first game they’ve taken the field opposite of each other since the 1998 Insight.com bowl, which resulted in a Tigers victory.
Date/Time: Saturday, Sept. 3, 11:00 AM CDT
Where: Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium (Morgantown, West Virginia)
Forecast: Sunshine with some cloudy intervals. Winds ENE at 5 to 10 mph. 85° F
TV: Fox Sports 1
Betting Line: WVU -10
The West Virginia Mountaineers
West Virginia’s offense will rely on senior quarterback Skyler Howard. In the Cactus Bowl win, Howard threw for 532 yards and five touchdowns. Last season, he ranked ninth in the country in average yards per completion at 14.2. Howard is a play-maker; he isn’t a Baker Mayfield or Patrick Mahomes or Mason Rudolph, but he has the ability to put up big numbers in a hurry.
The Mountaineers are going to want to establish the run early this year, but the loss of leading rusher Wendell Smallwood isn’t going to help that cause. Russell Shell, a senior, is going to carry the load in the backfield. Shell averages 4.4 yards per carry over his career, and the Mountaineers are going to need him to continue that production if they want to open up the passing game.
The receiving trio of Ka’Raun White, Daikiel Shorts Jr. and Shelton Gibson are capable of big plays on any down, but the group is going to need to be more consistent as the year progresses on, if the Mountaineers offense is going to be successful.
West Virginia had a great run defense last year, but the Mountaineers are replacing three of the top six lineman. The top four linebackers also left, so their front seven is going to be tested early and often by the Tigers offense. Not to mention, Karl Joseph is no longer lurking in the secondary.
The five starting defensive backs have a combined 10 career starts, with safety Jarrod Harper owning nine of those. The 6’0″ senior is going to be trusted with controlling the secondary this season, and their overall ability as a unit may come down to his experience and leadership.
Keys To The Game
Win the turnover battle – If Howard can keep the ball out of the Mizzou secondary’s hands, then the Mountaineers are going to have an advantage. Lackluster ball protection can haunt teams at the beginning of the year, and West Virginia can’t afford to have Howard turning the ball over multiple times if they want to win.
Control the tempo – With the young and inexperienced defense, if the Mountaineer offense has quick three-and-outs, it is going to wear on the defense. It is key for the offense to have long, sustained drives in order to let the defense catch their breath and not be on the field for two-thirds of the game.
Get up early – West Virginia has a good chance to put this away early. If they’re able to get a two or three touchdown lead at halftime, it is going to make it easier for the defense to play well and gain experience instead of turning the game into a shootout. If they get behind, Howard will be forced to make gutsy moves, which could cause turnovers and crush the Mountaineers hopes of starting the 2016 season with a “W” against a quality SEC opponent.
Another early kickoff for the Big 12 on the first week of the season, who would’ve guessed? West Virginia may have the slight edge in this factor, but no team comes into Morgantown and walks away with an easy win. Morgantown is one of the rowdiest college towns on game day, and with it being the first game of the year, the fans are going to be antsy to cheer their team on anyway they can.
If West Virginia can control the clock, not turn the ball over and play off the energy of the crowd, the Tigers are going to have a hard time finding any momentum. The Mountaineers are going to start the season off on the right track and win by two touchdowns, 45-24.