Halfway through the season, the teams that will suit up under the bright lights in Waco, TX have vastly different outlooks on their 2017 campaign to this point.
Baylor is hoping that their Homecoming this weekend won’t be a bittersweet one that sends the Bears yet another loss. A win for this team would technically keep Matt Rhule’s team in bowl contention, but a victory over No. 23 West Virginia would be one Rhule could hang his hat on.
For the Mountaineers, a road win here would represent another step in the right direction towards being in the running for the conference championship in December.
DATE & TIME: SAT, OCT 21 at 7:00 PM CT
WHERE: McLane Stadium (Waco, TX)
FORECAST: Mid-60s, Partly Cloudy
STREAM: Fox Sports Go
BETTING LINE: WVU -9.5
WEST VIRGINIA (4-2, 2-1)
At 2-1 in conference play, the Mountaineers are one of a handful of Big 12 teams vying for a spot in the Big 12 championship.
They come into this matchup with an eye to carry over last week’s second half momentum. After going down 35-17, the Mountaineers scored 29 unanswered points to beat the Red Raiders 46-35.
In spite of having to overcome an early deficit, West Virginia got the win by making a handful of big plays and playing lights out defense late. On their way to getting the win, receivers Ka’Raun White and David Sills V averaged 14.3 and 14.8 yards per catch respectively.
They served as reliable, athletic targets for quarterback Will Grier, who has a big time arm and multiple pass catchers he can go to at any time. So far this season, it’s paid off for him – Grier currently has thrown 21 touchdown passes, which is more than any other Big 12 quarterback.
Opposing defenses also won’t like having to hand explosive running back Justin Crawford, who is on pace for a 1,000 yard season. His offensive line will look to bounce back after a game where they gave him room to run for only 47 yards on the day, however.
Defensively, new faces in the front seven has led to struggles stopping the rushing attack of Mountaineer opponents. Tony Gibson’s squad is giving up 210.7 yards per game, which puts the West Virginia run defense at second to last in the Big 12.
The pass defense, which ended last week’s game with three three-and-outs and an interception, will hope to continue that type of performance on the road.
BAYLOR (0-6, 0-3)
After a tough outing against Oklahoma State, Baylor is hoping to stave off being officially eliminated from bowl eligibility.
The winless Bears can find solace in the fact that they’ve gotten within one to two scores in all of their losses. They have mostly done so by exhibiting some big play ability on the arm of Zach Smith, but inconsistent play and depth issues have prevented success.
Last week, Baylor jumped on top of Oklahoma State 7-0 with a methodical drive running the ball. It was downhill from there, though, as Baylor got inside the Oklahoma State 40 yard line five times only to come away with three field goals and two turnovers.
Throughout 2017, running backs like Terence Williams and John Lovett have shown that they can score in space. Last week’s 219 yards rushing should give the coaching staff reason to believe they can move the ball on the ground this Saturday.
Defensively, the Bears have struggled this far to defend the run. They currently field the worst rush defense in the Big 12, but have had some glimpses of success defending the passing game.
A definite bright spot for Baylor has been kicker Connor Martin, who has put 84.6 percent of his field tries through the uprights. If the Bears get into a close game, they should be able to depend on the sophomore.
KEYS TO THE GAME FOR WVU
Run It Early– If West Virginia wants to get off to a fast start this week, they need to commit to the run game and unleash Justin Crawford on this porous Bears defense. Wearing down this young and relatively Baylor team early could payoff for a lot of those bigger plays downfield later in the game.
Be Mindful Of The Deep Ball – This season Baylor has proven that they have speedy wide receivers on the outside who can pick up big yardage when in man-to-man. Hopefully, Tony Gibson pays attention to the Zach Smith who lit up Kansas State and Oklahoma rather than the one who was 11-for-28 passing last week. Momentum swinging plays are the only way this could turn into a scary game for West Virginia.
Be Solid On Special Teams – The one thing that can lead to a game quickly getting away from a team on the road is funky mistakes on special teams. That phase of the game usually speaks the focus of a squad and West Virginia wants to avoid giving Baylor any game-changing plays in this phase by having good fundamentals in tackling, blocking and catching on Saturday.
KEYS TO THE GAME FOR BU
Commit To Running The Ball – It will be tempting for Baylor to start throwing the ball if they fall behind early in this game, but West Virginia has shown some weakness in their run defense. If Baylor is able to run the ball, they can shorten the game and take plays away from this explosive West Virginia offense. A close game at home will get the crowd into it and give the Bears one more advantage.
Make Punt Returns Count– Baylor has been fairly good throughout the season returning punts. Hopefully, Matt Rhule will have spent some extra time with his punt return squad this week. If Baylor can manage to get Will Grier and company off the field, that could get this team closer to Connor Martin’s range.
Avoid Explosive Scoring Plays – A high scoring game with a lot of quick strikes probably does not favor the Bears. What kind of contest does? One where both teams have to drive the ball down the field instead of being able to get big touchdown passes over the top. West Virginia will surely test the Baylor defense running Justin Crawford straight at them, but the Bears should avoid loading up the box. Giving up long touchdown plays could make this a long day for Baylor.
If Baylor loses this game, they will officially not make a bowl for the first time since 2009. That was feat many would not be surprised to see at this point in the season, but it will be interesting to see how Rhule’s handles adversity in a strong Big 12 conference. Saturday could send us some indication as to the mentality of that team.
West Virginia may not be able to do everything they want to offensively in this game, which could see the Mountaineers looking ahead to their contest with Oklahoma State the week following. Ultimately, though, the Mountaineers will win this game and cover the spread to get another win in Big 12 play.