MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — He’d like the .500 record to be better, but coach Tom Herman said his first Texas team likes road games.
They nearly won at USC, handled Iowa State in Ames and crushed Baylor by 31 points in Waco. At the neutral-site Red River Rivalry, the Longhorns led in the final 7 minutes of a 29-24 loss to Oklahoma.
“Our guys play a little freer, a little looser, and that’s a good thing,” Herman said before the Longhorns boarded their flight to West Virginia. “They have a confident energy, not a nervous energy.”
The only road outlier for Texas (5-5, 4-3) this season was a 24-7 loss at TCU, a game the Mountaineers (7-3, 5-2) wouldn’t mind replicating when Saturday’s matchup kicks off at noon.
Mindful that there’s an 80-percent chance of rain, we check the storylines wit WVU favored by a field goal in this week’s Four-Down Territory:
On one hand, Jake Spavital is close to coordinating an unprecedented offense, because no FBS team has ever produced three 1,000-yard receivers, a 1,000-yard rusher and a 4,000-yard passer in the same season.
On the other hand, his offense hasn’t scored a second-half point during the past two games and owns one of the worst third-down conversion rates in the country.
“Sometimes we look like the greatest offense to ever walk on this planet, and then the next drive we look like the worst offense to ever play the game,” Spavital said.
Those same receivers accumulating huge numbers have been plagued by dropped passes — some foiled wide-open plays, others became tipped interceptions.
“They see it,” Spavital said. ”They know how explosive they can be, and they know how good they can be if they play consistently for four quarters.”
Texas D looks like “13 guys”
The Big 12’s most talent-rich defense corrected itself after an embarrassing opener against Maryland and now ranks second in the league in points and yards allowed.
“Sometimes I think there’s 13 guys out there,” said WVU running backs coach Tony Dews.
Scouts project up to five NFL players on that Longhorns unit, though attrition has thinned it. Top cornerback Holton Hill received a season-ending suspension before last week’s win over Kansas, and nickelback P.J. Locke has missed two games with an ankle injury.
Less noteworthy, but potentially important, top backup corner Josh Thompson (head) did not make the trip to Morgantown.
The unit remains formidable with Poona Ford, Charles Oemenihu, Malcolm Roach and Breckyn Hager on the line, and junior Malik Jefferson — a former five-star Rivals recruit — standing out among the linebackers. The secondary features Thorpe Award semifinalist DeShon Elliott (six INTs) at safety and junior cornerback Kris Boyd, who was the top-rated player at his position coming got of high school.
“I recruited some these guys,” said Spavital, recalling his stint at Texas A&M. “Now they’re getting into their junior and senior years where they’ve played a lot of ball and they’re mature.
“They’re playing with a swagger, and Coach (Todd) Orlando does a good job at misdirection They’re bluffing and blitzing and dropping and you don’t know where they’re coming from. Its impossible to break them down — they’ve done like 200 blitzes that are all different.”
Gibby compresses playbook
Defenses typically expand their packages throughout the season as players gain a deeper comprehension and coordinators seek to break tendencies. Tony Gibson has gone the other direction at West Virginia, simplifying matters for a rebuilding defense strained by injuries.
“A lot less calls,” he said. “It’s hard to move guys to different positions and keep expanding your call sheet, so instead you need to shrink it. We’re double-teaching them. Matt (Caponi) has got guys in his room that are going to have to play all the safety spots. I’ve got guys in my room that are going to have to play all three linebacker spots.”
Against Iowa State and Kansas State, the Mountaineers defense strung together resilient performances, yielding three touchdowns on eight red-zone trips.
Coach Dana Holgorsen declined to provide injury updates on safety Toyous Avery, linebacker Xavier Preston and backup nose guard Jalen Harvey.
Which QBs for UT?
Whoever starts at quarterback for Texas — Shane Buechele or freshman Sam Ehlinger — won’t necessarily be Herman’s choice at the end.
He said both will be used early in the game “and then we’ll probably get a feel for how each of them is playing.”
West Virginia is familiar with Buechele, and Kyzir White is very familiar with the sophomore who has started five games this season, including the last three. Ehlinger returned from a concussion for a cameo in the recent 42-27 win over Kansas.
Ehlinger nearly led Texas to a win at USC, and he enjoyed a monster game against K-State (380 yards passing, 107 yards rushing). But youthful mistakes bubbled up along the way, none worse than his foolish overtime interception against Oklahoma State that ended a 13-10 loss.