A busy September comes to an end for West Virginia on Saturday when the Mountaineers play their first Big 12 road game this season against TCU at Amon G. Carder Stadium.
The 8 p.m. contest can be seen on ESPN2 and marks the fifth game this season for a pair of 3-1 teams on three-game win streaks.
Since losing its season opener at No. 7 Penn State, WVU took care of business against Duquesne and used stingy defensive efforts to defeat Pitt and Texas Tech.
The Horned Frogs dropped their season opener to Colorado, but have responded well to the early adversity by defeating Nicholls, Houston and SMU, including outscoring the latter two opponents, 70-30.
“This is our last opportunity before we get a much-needed bye,” West Virginia head coach Neal Brown said. “We play this one and then we get a little bit of time off. Guys are eager. This is about proving if we’re going to be a contender in the league or not. They were one of the favorites in the preseason. Obviously a team that went on a tremendous run last year. We’re going on the road in a tough environment and we need to take advantage of that opportunity.”
While West Virginia has struggled to sustain drives and move the ball through the air, the Mountaineers did not name a starting quarterback in advance of the matchup with the Horned Frogs.
Garrett Greene started the season’s first three games, but left early against Pitt with an injury to his right ankle. Greene’s absence a week ago allowed Nicco Marchiol to make his first career start.
Greene is expected to give it a go at TCU in what would mark his sixth career start. Brown has noted since the injury that Greene wouldn’t return to the lineup unless he’s able to showcase his athleticism, which is a big part of the dual threat’s skill set.
“He won’t start unless he can play what his strengths are,” Brown said, “which means he can run.”
Whether Greene returns or Marchiol makes his second start, the Mountaineers will undoubtedly look to establish the run game behind an experienced offensive line.
Tailback CJ Donaldson has a team-high 287 rushing yards and three touchdowns, though he enters off a season-low 48 yards against the Red Raiders.
Even if West Virginia can establish enough of a push up front to run in the fashion it desires, the Mountaineers will need more from a passing attack that’s failed to produce 100 yards through the air in consecutive contests.
Brown said earlier this week the wide receiver rotation would be lessened from what it has been, and the Mountaineers will need to hit more explosive plays through the air to avoid TCU consistently loading the box in an effort to slow the run.
Tight end Kole Taylor has been a bright spot offensively and has a touchdown reception in the last two games.
Defense has been the calling card of late for West Virginia, which has allowed one touchdown and 19 points in two victories over Power 5 opponents.
The Mountaineers have used defensive line depth to their advantage while getting solid play from linebackers Lee Kpogba and Trey Lathan. Improved pass coverage on the back end has made a major difference for the secondary, which has benefited from the return of versatile safety Marcis Floyd as well as the play of safety Aubrey Burks and cornerback Beanie Bishop Jr.
“We’re fueled off being picked 14th in the conference. It doesn’t get anymore of an underdog than that.” Kpogba said. “We’re not forgetting where they picked us to finish. We want to keep our head down and work to prove everybody wrong.”
West Virginia’s defense will be in for a tough test against a team that’s scored at least 34 points in every game.
Quarterback Chandler Morris is completing 69 percent of his passes and has 1,121 yards with nine touchdowns. Morris is also the team’s second-leading rusher with 184 yards and a pair of scores on the ground.
Three TCU wideouts — JP Richardson, Warren Thompson and Jaylon Robinson — and tight end Jared Wiley have at least 120 receiving yards, while Wiley’s three touchdown catches are a team high.
But much like West Virginia, the Horned Frogs first and foremost strive to establish their ground game, and tailback Emani Bailey has 483 rushing yards on six yards per carry. Fellow running back Trey Sanders has half of the team’s eight rushing TDs.
“They’re going to throw it,” Brown said, “but they’re committed to the run.”
Linebackers Jamoi Hodge, Johnny Hodges and Nandi Obiazor are often around the ball and must be accounted for by the Mountaineers.
Obiazor has a team-best 33 tackles, while Hodges and Hodge follow at 21 and 20, respectively. Hodge has a team-high four tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries, while Hodges, who missed last week’s win over SMU with a hand injury, has three TFLs.
“Those guys are good and they’re winning a bunch of 1-on-1s,” Brown said. “When you kind of turn the page to your next opponent, fourth in the country in sacks is going to grab your attention.”
A year ago, in what was head coach Sonny Dykes’ first season at TCU, the Horned Frogs won each of their first 12 games before falling to Kansas State in the conference title game. TCU bounced back to beat Michigan in a national semifinal before losing to Georgia in the National Championship.
Before Dykes became the Horned Frogs’ head coach, Brown had guided the Mountaineers to three wins in as many games against TCU, including two in Fort Worth.
“We have to prove that we’re a contender,” Brown said. “We’re 1-0 [in the Big 12], but I’m not sure that we’ve grabbed national attention or anything yet. We have to continue to win games. The whole goal is you get into November with a chance to win your league. That’s kind of the way we talked about it. You want to get into November where you’re competing to go to Dallas.
“You have to defend your home turf and you have go beat quality teams on the road. This is the first opportunity we’ve had in league play. We didn’t get it done versus Penn State and Penn State continues to prove that they’re probably one of the top 5 teams in the country and they have a real chance to make the playoff. This our next opportunity. This is a team that we played well against last year, but not good enough to win. We need to play a little bit better to give ourselves a chance.”