When the No. 12 West Virginia Mountaineers take on the No. 25 Texas Tech Red Raiders in Lubbock, it will be the biggest conference game up to this point.
The Red Raiders have rocketed into conference contention after beating Oklahoma State last weekend, and they are hungry for upsets in back-to-back weeks.
Texas Tech is led by quarterback Alan Bowman, who has already broken plenty of Big 12 freshman records in just four appearances. The Mountaineers, led by Heisman hopeful and potential NFL draftee Will Grier, have been taking care of business and remain undefeated through three games.
A lot will be on the line when this game kicks off. A win for West Virginia puts them in really good position to make a splash and seriously enter the CFP conversation. For Texas Tech, a win keeps their hopes of competing for either a conference championship or a New Year’s Six bowl game alive.
WEST VIRGINIA (3-0, 1-0)
West Virginia has won the only bowl matchup between these teams, a 7-6 victory for the Mountaineers in the 1937 Sun Bowl. If one thing is certain, though, it’s that this Saturday’s final score will probably not be 7-6.
The Mountaineers have one of the premier offenses in the country. With Grier behind center, West Virginia has been playing at a Top 10 level so far this season. In three games, he has tossed for 14 scores and is averaging just under 400 yards a contest.
Grier has a trio of elite receivers who are averaging 80 yards-plus per game, something no other FBS team has accomplished. Gary Jennings and David Sills are becoming household names by now, but junior Marcus Simms is getting there with just under 100 yards a game. Those three, paired with T.J Simmons and tight ends Jovani Haskins and Trevon Wesco, give Grier a long list of weapons.
Much like their opponent this week, West Virginia uses a committee approach at running back. Freshman Leddie Brown is the best all around back on the team, while Martell Pettaway has power back size but deceptively elusive. Kennedy Mckoy is hard to tackle in a phone booth. The offensive line behind Yodny Cajuste has played excellent and has given the run game holes and the passing game years to find something.
One of the main reasons the Mountaineers have won every game by at least 29 points is, surprisingly, the play of their defense. They can create pressure, cover, and get off the field. They have passed every test so far in 2018 with flying colors, excelling at third down stops and tackles for loss.
It all starts with the big man Kenny Bigelow at nose tackle, who demands two blocks up the middle and frees up fellow linemen Jabril Robinson and Darius Stills. The play of the line benefits linebackers David Long and Toyous Avery, who are both having an exceptional year.
Players like defensive backs Dravon Askew-Henry and Kenny Robinson have progressed from 2017 and are a big part of the good coverage the Mountaineers have enjoyed so far, even though there have been concerns. The Mountaineers’ defense still tends to give up checkdowns, comeback routes, and even the occasional deep ball.
All in all, though, this is a defense that leads the nation when it comes to points allowed per game at 12.3, so it’s reasonable to expect West Virginia to be able to contain the Red Raiders somewhat.
TEXAS TECH (3-1, 1-0)
Texas Tech is in a prime situation. After a Week 1 loss to Ole Miss, a lot of people gave up on this Red Raider squad, but they’ve responded with three wins in a row. Those wins include a 63-49 victory against the Houston Cougars and a 41-17 upset over the 15th ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys in Stillwater. Those wins gave Texas Tech a spot in the AP poll this week.
The Red Raiders have done it all because of an improved defense and freshman quarterback Alan Bowman. Bowman has thrown for 1,557 yards and 10 touchdowns and has by far been college football’s most impressive freshman.
Bowman has weapons at his disposal, but might be without one of his go-to guys, since wide receiver T.J Vasher is doubtful for the game in Lubbock. Still, he’ll have Antoine Weasley, who has racked up over 500 yards and has found the endzone four times, and senior Ja Deion High, the team’s second-leading receiver.
High is short for a wide receiver but is still very dangerous on the field. KeSean Carter and Zach Austin also average about four catches a game and will play a role against West Virginia.
The run game for Texas Tech has been very productive with Ta’Zhawn Henry as the premier back. Henry has 231 yards and six touchdowns in just three games.
Behind him, the three other backs are also legitimate rushing threats. Demarcus Felton is a shorter back, but is coming off a huge game against Oklahoma State. Da’Leon Ward and SaRodorick Thompson both get the leftover carries and produce when given the opportunity.
The biggest change for Texas Tech this season has been the defense, which is giving up 28 points per game after coming off a very good second half performance against Oklahoma State. That improvement is because of the play of defensive backs Damarcus Fields and Adrian Frye: both have five pass break ups and Frye has three interceptions through four games. Texas
Tech’s front seven has stepped up as well.
The linebacker play from Dakota Allen is great. He has 25 tackles so far and is one of the conference’s best defensive players. Linemen Tony Jones and Eli Howard have been creating pressure, while linebacker Jordyn Brooks is already one tackle-for-loss shy of his career high of five.
This defense may not be elite, but with the offense they have, they don’t need to be. As long as the Red Raiders can get the occasional stop or turnover and clamp up late in games, that will be enough more often than not.
Texas Tech Keys to the Game
Alan Bowman Needs To Be Electric Again – The Red Raiders need a big performance from their quarterback in this one. Alan Bowman has been nothing short of spectacular this year, but this is his biggest test. Rest assured, the Mountaineers are going to bring pressure. Bowman might not have his 600 yards, but if he handles the pressure well and controls the game, Texas Tech will be in a good position.
Force Turnovers and Get The Occasional Stop – In shootout games the defense that can get the occasional stop always wins. When Patrick Mahomes had his out of this world game versus Oklahoma a few years ago, OU got the occasional stop and won the game. Earlier this year in a shootout against Houston, the Red Raiders got just enough stops to pull out a fourteen point victory. Given how hard it’s been to for teams to stop West Virginia, they might need to resort to forcing turnovers, something that other teams have been able to do.
Run A Ton Of Plays – The Mountaineers defense has played great because of the defensive line play. Last year that group just was dead by the end of games and couldn’t create pressure. The more plays Texas Tech runs (And boy do they like to run a lot of them), the more tired that front of Bigelow and Sills gets. If West Virginia can’t create pressure late in a close game, it will tip the scale towards the Red Raiders.
West Virginia Keys To The Game
Grier Needs To Be Grier – Will Grier is capable of leading this offense to 70 points against an average defense, but will he against the Red Raiders? It should be difficult for Texas Tech to gets pressure against the Mountaineer offensive line, giving Grier plenty of time to throw. That’s where his communication with his receivers comes into play. If Grier, Sills and Jennings can play throw-and-catch all over the field, it’s mostly likely over for the Red Raiders. The better offense will win this game – right now, West Virginia looks like they have the edge there.
Run The Ball – The defensive line for West Virginia can’t afford to be tired this week, so giving them a chance to rest on the sidelines will be key. To do that, the Mountaineers need to feed their committee of running backs. I don’t foresee Texas Tech stacking the box and taking defensive backs out of coverage. Being able to run the ball and kill clock will be a huge factor in this game.
Continue To Get Pressure – The Mountaineers’ defense has surprised a lot of people and played lights out this year. The coverage has improved from 2017, but the addition of Kenny Bigelow and Jabril Robinson up front have made defensive coordinator Tony Gibson do what he does best: wreak havoc on other teams’ quarterbacks. The pressure the West Virginia defense has been causing is unreal, and if they keep that up, it’s going to be a long day for Alan Bowman and Texas Tech.
Texas Tech has played so well lately, but it’s hard to believe that their improvement isn’t somewhat of a fluke. Last year they were ranked 24th in the country entering Morgantown. Then, Will Grier went off and basically sent them on a road trip to the abyss. I expect nothing different – a Mountaineer team that will hover around ten wins and a Texas Tech one I expect to hover around seven. Right now, West Virginia just looks like the better team, and I believe it’ll show on Saturday.