WVU defense faces tough task trying to maintain momentum at Texas

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For West Virginia’s defense to put together a third consecutive stingy effort Saturday night, the Mountaineers need to be at their best against a Texas offense anything but short on talent.

“It’s [numbers] zero through 10,” WVU defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley quipped.

The Longhorns don’t have a No. 10, so not entirely true, but point taken.

“To say it’s a challenge is an understatement,” Lesley concluded after referencing seven single-digit numbers in reference to players that concern him as someone tasked with trying to limit the Longhorns in a 7:30 p.m. matchup that Fox Sports 1 will air.

There could be another concern in that Texas’ quarterback situation remains unknown after redshirt freshman Quinn Ewers suffered a clavicle sprain during a one-point loss to Alabama in Week 2.

Ewers, an Ohio State transfer, hasn’t played since, though he traveled to Texas Tech and dressed in last Saturday’s 37-34 overtime setback. Instead, sophomore Hudson Card has been behind center for UT.

Card has played in all four games, completing 53-of-80 passes for 620 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Over two appearances, Ewers is 25-of-36 for 359 yards with a pair of touchdown passes and one interception.

“A lot of people would like to have their situation,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said. “I’m not going to shed any tears for them.“

Regardless of who’s at quarterback for Texas, Brown believes a tough challenge is in store.

“Whoever plays, they’re going to play at a high level at quarterback,” he said. “Hudson Card has played really well. I’ve been watching him since high school and he could’ve gone anywhere in the country. He played well last year when he was healthy. Ewers played extremely well early on against Alabama and is obviously highly regarded.”

Sep 22, 2022; Blacksburg, Virginia, USA; West Virginia Mountaineers defensive back Jacolby Spells (28) intercepts a pass and runs it back for a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Lane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen

West Virginia’s secondary remains a work in progress, but made strides last week, including a 27-yard interception return for a touchdown from true freshman cornerback Jacolby Spells that sealed a 33-10 win at Virginia Tech.

“In my mind, guys that make plays deserve to play more,” Lesley said.

A tougher task awaits, particularly as WVU looks to limit explosive wideout Xavier Worthy. Worthy has a team-high 212 receiving yards on 14 catches one season after he posted 62 receptions for 981 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman.

“One of the best deep ball threats in the country,” Lesley said. “The kid can fly.”

Fellow wideout Jordan Whittington has a team-high 18 receptions for 199 yards, while tailback Bijan Robinson and tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders are also big factors in the pass game.

Robinson missed Texas’ loss at West Virginia in 2021 due to a dislocated elbow, but enters averaging 6.2 yards on 67 carries, seven of which have gone for touchdowns.

A season ago, Robinson rushed for 1,127 yards and 11 touchdowns and caught 26 passes for 295 yards and an additional four scores in 10 games. He is among the Big 12’s top NFL prospects and will test a Mountaineer run defense that held the Hokies to 35 rushing yards last Thursday — Virginia Tech’s lowest rushing total since 2015.

“He’s an inside and outside runner and has the speed to hit a home run and power to run inside,” Brown said. “He can pick up the blitz, be a lead blocker and he’s a great pass receiver in the backfield our out wide. That’s a five-tool player at running back. The kid’s special.”

Adding to the challenge is that second-year UT head coach Steve Sarkisian is regarded by many as one of the brightest offensive minds in college football.

Sarkisian was an offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons and then Alabama before taking the head job at Texas.

“He’s as good a play-caller as there is in college football,” Brown said.

Sarkisian’s job is certainly made easier with the Longhorns possessing a plethora of talent offensively, but according to Lesley, the head coach’s ability to set those players up for success and adapt can’t be overlooked.

“What sticks out to me with coach Sarkisian is his tendencies change and his ability to get whatever he has in a position to make plays is as good as anybody,” Lesley said. “To me, that’s what makes a good play-caller.”

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