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West Virginia Takes On Big 12-Hopeful BYU

Mountaineers look to stay perfect in the non-con against a near miss BYU squad.

Getty Images - Joe Sargent

Who is the best team in the Big 12? Right now, it is West Virginia by default. The Mountaineers, for now, are one of only two teams in the conference that have yet to shame the league in front of the nation with an embarrassing loss. It is also worth noting that WVU has beaten an SEC team by 15 points, albeit not exactly an elite contender. They followed that 26-11 opening week win over Missouri with a less-than-impressive 38-21 win over the mighty Youngstown State Penguins.

This cannot really be the most impressive resume in the conference right?  Unless you want to entertain the thought of Baylor’s pastry shop of a non-conference slate, it is.   The Mountaineers will have plenty of chances to prove they belong with Saturday’s matchup with 1-2 BYU being the team’s final touch-up before hosting Kansas State to open league play. In a year where a floundering Big 12 seems to have left the door wide open, Dana Holgerson’s crew might just find themselves contending for a championship.

Despite the neutral site, West Virginia should have a bit of an advantage: Fedex Field is just over three hours from Morgantown. Two months ago, this game had potential for a more interesting story line, as most folks thought this matchup a preview of a future Big 12 conference game. Although they have lost some steam in expansion talk, BYU still brings a decent team to Landover, Maryland. In three games against Pac-12 foes, the Cougars have won on a game-winning field goal and lost by a combined margin of  four points. It has been a disappointing couple of weeks for BYU fans, as their Cougars dropped the Holy War game against Utah by a razor thin margin, and then fell to UCLA in their home opener.

The Mountaineers topped our most recent LGG power rankings, but admittedly we do not know a whole lot about how good this West Virginia squad really is with the two game sample size. They have been completely overlooked so far, not even receiving votes in the latest AP poll. An impressive showing on Saturday could begin to garner the Mountaineers some respect around college football.

Date/Time: Saturday, September 23, 3:30 PM ET
Where: FedEx Field (Landover, MD)
Forecast: Partly cloudy, 8 mph winds, High of 77°
TV: ESPN2
Betting Line: West Virginia -7, O/U 51

One of only two unbeaten teams remaining in the conference, West Virginia has looked like the league’s most complete team. While other defenses across the Big 12 have been torched for big plays and huge yardage, the Mountaineers’ D has been solid, holding Missouri to only 11 points holding its opponents to 16ppg. Despite graduating several quality seniors off of last year’s defense, WVU maintains a talented and experienced bunch, starting eight seniors and three juniors on defense. The offense has been competent, but has yet to really take flight, managing 32 points per game behind senior Skyler Howard.

Keys to the Game

Take Care of the Football – Neither of these teams have done a phenomenal job of taking care of the football. BYU’s Taysom Hill has thrown four picks to only two touchdowns through three games. Coupling that with the Cougar ball carriers’ tendency to cough up the football (they’ve fumbled three times) would lead one to believe West Virginia could steal some takeaways on Saturday. If that happens, expect a similar performance as the Cougars had against Utah, where BYU gave the ball to the Utes three times in an ugly offensive showing.

Skyler Howard and the Mountaineers have had better luck maintaining possession. After three giveaways in two games, Howard sports a 5-2 TD to INT ratio. If Howard turns in a steady performance and West Virginia can get some consistent production from their ground game, turnovers should not give them fits. Give the edge to West Virginia here.

Which Taysom Hill will we see? – Remember when BYU embarrassed Texas in Provo in 2013, parading all over the Longhorn defense to the tune of a record 550 yards on the ground and 41 points? And then pretty much did the same thing in Austin in 2014? Yeah, the guy that orchestrated those blowouts and turned in a 259 yard rushing performance against the ‘Horns still runs this BYU offense.

Taysom Hill has not exactly been the same dynamic player since returning from a painful season-ending foot injury he suffered against Nebraska a year ago. He’s average 248 total yards a game, with only 39 of those coming on the ground. His BYU offense has been quite underwhelming and by Big 12 standards, pretty much abysmal. The Cougars have yet to score more than two Touchdowns in a game and currently sit at 119th in the country in scoring offense.

In an age where even average passers around the country throw for 350 or 400 yards on a weekly basis, Hill’s hovering around the 200 yard mark in each game.  A recipe for 2016 that will not exactly win many games. “Everything falls on the quarterback,” Hill told the Salt Lake Tribune this week. “I’ve got to play better.”

Despite a slow start to 2016, keep in mind that Hill had been a big time playmaker for BYU prior to his injury. If the light switch flips on again, the West Virginia linebackers will be scampering all over FedexField trying to contain him. However, should the offensive woes continue for Hill and the Cougars, look for a bit of a lopsided affair in Landover.

Get the Air Attack Rolling – Given the quality of West Virginia’s defensive play thus far and BYU’s struggles offensively, I do not expect BYU to light up the scoreboard. It will be on West Virginia’s offense to execute efficiently. If the Mountaineers can find a way to harness the ability they showed they were capable of at times last year, they will win this football game.

But why has West Virginia sputtered a bit offensively in the early going of 2016? It’s tough to put the blame on Skyler Howard. While he’s been nothing spectacular, he has been efficient. To date he has earned the second best total QBR in the conference at 80.1, behind Patrick Mahomes’ 89.9 and ahead of Kenny Hill’s 75.2.

Right now, none of the national or Big 12 pundits consider Howard an elite playmaker at quarterback. Perhaps not elite, but Howard’s got grit. A week after playing through a rib injury against Mizzou, Howard matched his career high of 5 five touchdown passes against Youngstown State. Most are yet to be impressed with the 6 foot senior in 2016, but there’s some reason for optimism. With Howard at the helm, West Virginia has gained 9.2 yards per pass attempt, good for 2nd in the conference and 19th nationally.

Although Dana Holgorson made his name with the Air Raid style of offense, the Mountaineers relied heavily on Wendell Smallwood and Rushel Shell last year. Though the Mountaineers still lean on Shell this year, and tailback Justin Crawford,  WVU showed in their bowl game against Arizona State last year, moving back to an extremely effective passing game to their offensive repertoire can take this offense from solid to dangerous.

BYU’s secondary  has plenty of work on their hands in order to stop Howard and company will determine their chances to steal a win from the Mountaineers. But If Skyler Howard has a field day, it might turn into a long afternoon for BYU fans. BYU enters the game with the 78th ranked passing defense allowing 238 yards per game through the air.

Game Prediction

I fully expect the WVU defense to be stout. I think this game hinges on the Mountaineer offense, and consider me a believer, at least for this week. Rushel Shell runs for 130 yards and two scores while Skyler Howard adds another two scores through the air in an efficient outing. West Virginia gets to 3-0, 34-17.

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