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Game Preview: WVU vs. Baylor

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Grier leads the nation with 21 touchdown passes.

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Series: WVU 3-2

Last meeting: 2016: WVU 24 Baylor 21

Television: 8 p.m. FS2, Brian Custer (play-by-play), Ben Leber (analyst)


After engineering an 18-point second half comeback a week ago, No. 23 West Virginia (4-2, 2-1) will hit the road to attempt to do something it hasn’t to this point in league play – Beat Baylor in Waco.

The two teams have met five times, all of which have come since the Mountaineers joined the league prior to the 2012 season, with the home team claiming each game in the series. West Virginia has struggled in two previous meetings in Waco falling on average 68-40.

It is the classic set up for a trap game, as the Mountaineers are coming off an emotional win at home over Texas Tech where West Virginia rallied from an 18-point deficit in the third quarter to reel off 29-unanswered points and defeat their first ranked opponent in almost three years. The win snapped a nine game losing streak in such games and was the 50th overall win for head coach Dana Holgorsen who is now 50-33 in his seven seasons leading the Mountaineers.

Redshirt junior quarterback Will Grier ranks number one nationally with 21 passing touchdowns while throwing for 2,092 yards and completing 65.7-percent of his passes. Grier has thrown for at least 300-yards with multiple touchdown passes in every game this season, his first as the Mountaineers starting quarterback after sitting out last season as a transfer from Florida.

The signal caller has spread the football around to his four primary targets but junior David Sills leads the nation with 12 touchdown grabs, a number that is already good enough for second all-time in a single season in Morgantown. But it’s another junior in Gary Jennings that actually leads the Mountaineers in catches with 48 for 586 yards through the first half of the year.

However, the offense has struck a balance with senior running back Justin Crawford second in the Big 12 Conference in rushing with 609 yards and seven scores, averaging 6.5 per tote. Overall, the Mountaineers rank fifth nationally in scoring offense at 44.2 points per game and sixth nationally in total offense averaging 542.2 yards through six games on the season.

And now the program will have to travel to Baylor, where the Bears have struggled in the wake of the fallout from Art Briles departure. It is homecoming for the Bears with a late kickoff to boot.

Baylor has played 17 true freshmen this season and a total of ten are included on the Bears depth chart. Nine of those players have started in a game, which is the second most in FBS football.

Under first year head coach Matt Rhule, Baylor is currently 0-6 on the season as the Bears attempt to bounce back facing issues with program depth and roster numbers by filling those spots with inexperienced players. In his fifth season as a head coach, Rhule came over from Temple and has amassed a career 28-29 record. This will be the first meeting for Rhule against West Virginia at either of his head coaching stops.

Even with six losses on the season, the Bears have been competitive in every game this year outside of last weekend’s 59-16 loss on the road at Oklahoma State. Prior to that game, the Bears were within 14-points of every team on the schedule, including an 8-point loss to Oklahoma.

Unlike his predecessor when it comes to offensive style and throwing the football around the yard, Rhule and this Baylor team wants to attempt to establish a physical run game with a mix of ball carriers. The offense averages around 25 points and 400 yards per contest, with 135 of those coming on the ground led by true freshman John Lovett, who has accounted for 383 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Baylor started the season with Arizona graduate transfer Anu Solomon as its starting quarterback, but has since turned the keys of the offense over to sophomore Zach Smith. It was Smith that started against West Virginia a season ago in the 24-21 Mountaineers win in Morgantown. In that game, Smith completed 15-31 passes for 244 yards and a pair of touchdowns and interceptions.

This season, Smith was inserted as the starter against Duke and has accounted for 1,160 yards and eight touchdowns with six interceptions. Protection has been an issue at times for Smith up front and he has five turnovers in the fourth quarter of games this season to date.

The Bears wide receivers are led by sophomore Denzel Mims, who has turned 27 catches into 553 yards and seven touchdowns on the season including a 71-yard score. The second leading wide receiver on the team was junior Chris Platt, who recorded five touchdowns, but has been lost for the season.

Meanwhile the offensive line is a relatively inexperienced unit that has struggled at points in the season as injuries and other items forced the Bears to use four different combinations of players in the starting lineup in the first five games of the season.

The Baylor defense is coordinated by Phil Snow and is more of a 4-3 look, although the Bears have shown no hesitance on bringing as many as eight on blitzes.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Bears have struggled allowing 40-points per contest, ranking 121st nationally. Baylor is allowing 241 yards per game on the ground, ranking 119th in the country, and has also struggled defending the pass yielding 276.5 yards per contest, the 117th rated unit in that category.

Linebackers sophomore Clay Johnston and senior Taylor Young lead Baylor in tackles with 45 and 32 respectively while a number of freshmen are in the two deep for the Bears as Rhule attempts to rebuild the program.

Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. with the game televised by FS2.

West Virginia Depth Chart:

OFFENSE:

QB: 7 Will Grier, (r-Jr.), 11 Chris Chugunov, (r-So.)

RB: 25 Justin Crawford, (Sr.), 4 Kennedy McKoy, (So.), 32 Martell Pettaway, (So.)

HB: 28 Elijah Wellman, (r-Sr.), 81 Trevon Wesco, (r-Jr.)

X WR: 13 David Sills, V, (Jr.), 8 Marcus Simms (So.)

Y/H WR: 12 Gary Jennings, Jr., (Jr.), 85 Ricky Rogers, (r-Jr.)

Z WR: 2 Ka'Raun White, (r-Sr.), 10 Reggie Roberson, Jr., (Fr.)

LT: 55 Yodny Cajuste, (r-Jr.), 72 Kelby Wickline, (r-So.)

LG: 62 Kyle Bosch, (r-Sr.), 56 Grant Lingafelter (r-Sr.)

C: 79 Matt Jones, (r-So.), 58 Ray Raulerson, (r-Jr.)

RG: 73 Josh Sills, (r-Fr.), 65 Isaiah Hardy (Jr.)

RT: 53 Colton McKivitz, (r-So.), 72 Kelby Wickline, (r-So.)

DEFENSE:

DE: 88 Adam Shuler, (r-So.), 92 Jon Lewis, (r-Sr.)

NT: 49 Lamonte McDougle (Fr.), 99 Xavier Pegues, (r-Sr.),

DE: 46 Reese Donahue, (So.), 93 Ezekiel Rose, (Jr.)

SAM LB: 5 Xavier Preston, (Sr.), 33 Quondarius Qualls (Jr.)

MIKE LB: 3 Al-Rasheed Benton, (r-Sr.), 45 Adam Hensley (So.)

WILL LB: 11 David Long, Jr. (r-So.), 10 Dylan Tonkery, (r-Fr.)

SPUR: 8 Kyzir White, (Sr.), 18 Marvin Gross, Jr., (r-Sr.)

BS: 16 Toyous Avery, (r-Jr.), 1 Derrek Pitts, Jr., (Fr.)

FS: 6 Dravon Askew-Henry, (r-Jr.), 9 Jovanni Stewart, (So.)

LCB: 2 Kenny Robinson, (Fr.), 19 Elijah Battle, (Sr.)

RCB: 4 Mike Daniels, Jr., (Sr.), 24 Hakeem Bailey, (r-So.)

SPECIAL TEAMS:

K: 48 Mike Molina, (r-Sr.), 30 Evan Staley (r-Fr.)

P: 15 Billy Kinney, (r-Jr.), 43 Luke Hogan, (r-Fr.)

LS: 52 Nick Meadows, (r-Sr.), 64 Rex Sunahara, (r-So.)

H: 15 Billy Kinney, (r-Jr.), 43 Luke Hogan, (r-Fr.)

KO: 30 Evan Staley, (r-Fr.), 43 Luke Hogan, (r-Fr.)

PR: 8 Marcus Simms (So.), 13 David Sills, V, (Jr.)

KOR: 8 Marcus Simms (So.) 12 Gary Jennings, Jr., (Jr.)

NOTES:

--This year marks the 126th year of West Virginia football with the Mountaineers currently sitting in 14th place all-time in wins in college football.

--WVU is 24-24 in Big 12 Conference Games, 11-13 on the road. Head Coach Dana Holgorsen is 3-2 all-time against Baylor with all three wins coming at home.

--Since 2000, West Virginia is 111-14 when scoring more than 30 points and 57-4 when scoring more than 40 points in a game. West Virginia has won 15 straight games when scoring 30 points or more.

--The Mountaineers are 83-12 since 2002 when winning the turnover battle.

--West Virginia is ranked fifth nationally in scoring offense at 44.2 points per game and sixth nationally in total offense averaging 542.2 yards through six games on the season. The offense has had 21 scoring drives of 70 yards or more, all of which have resulted in touchdowns.

--In the Holgorsen era, WVU has produced 79 games with 300 or more yards, 60 games with 400 or more yards, 33 games with more than 500 yards and 17 with more than 600 yards.

--Junior David Sills 12 touchdown catches is tied with four others for the second most touchdowns all-time in a single season at West Virginia. Stedman Bailey holds the record with the 25 touchdown passes he hauled in during the 2012 campaign. Sills currently leads the nation in touchdown grabs.

--Under Holgorsen West Virginia has scored 30 or more points in 55 games, 40 or more points in 29 games, 50 or more points in 10 games and 60 or more points three times.

--The 2017 roster consists of 121 players from 20 different states.

--Coaching staff assignments: AHC/DC/LB Tony Gibson (field), OC/QB Jake Spavital (field), CB Doug Belk (press box), WR Tyron Carrier (field), S Matt Caponi (field), RB Tony Dews (field), LB/ST Mark Scott (press box), DL Bruce Tall (press box), OL Joe Wickline (field)

--There are 33 Mountaineers who have seen their first WVU action during the 2017 season: Hakeem Bailey (CB), Chase Behrndt (OL), Dante Bonamico (S), Druw Bowen (WR), Tevin Bush (RB), Mitch Chugunov (WR), Elijah Drummond (FB), Brendan Ferns (LB), Will Grier (QB), Isaiah Hardy (OL), Jalen Harvey (DL), Osman Kamara (S), Jake Long (CB), Sean Mahone (CB), Dominique Maiden (WR), Alejando Marenco III (WR), Lamonte McDougle (DL), Quondarius Qualls (LB), Xavier Pegues (DL) Derrek Pitts Jr. (S), Jeffery Pooler (DL), Ray Raulerson (OL), Reggie Roberson Jr (WR), Kenny Robinson (CB), Ezekiel Rose (DL), Josh Sills (OL), Evan Staley (K), Darius Stills (DL), Rex Sunahara (LS), Dylan Tonkery (LB), Kelby Wickline (OL), Corey Winfield (CB) and Jonn Young (P).

--West Virginia has run a total of 475 plays with 228 coming on the ground and 247 through the air. The rushing game has totaled 1,110 yards for an average of 4.9 per carry and 13 touchdowns. The passing attack has totaled 2,173 yards, 22 touchdowns and an average of 13.5 per completion.

--The Mountaineers have gained 63 first downs via the run and 88 with the pass. West Virginia has averaged 185 yards per game on the ground and 362.2 in the air for a total of 547.2 yards per game.

Injuries/Suspensions: Redshirt freshman linebacker Brendan Ferns will miss the remainder of the 2017 season after undergoing shoulder surgery.

Redshirts: Six true freshmen played in the season opener against Virginia Tech in Tevin Bush (RB), Lamonte McDougle (DL), Derrek Pitts Jr. (S), Reggie Roberson Jr. (WR), Kenny Robinson (CB) and Darius Stills (DL).

--A total of fourteen redshirt freshmen have seen action for the Mountaineers in 2017: Chase Behrndt (OL), Dante Bonamico (S), Druw Bowen (WR), Mitch Chugunov (WR), Elijah Drummond (HB), Brendan Ferns (LB), Osman Kamara (S), Jake Long (CB), Sean Mahone (CB), Jefferey Pooler (DL), Josh Sills (OL), Evan Staley (K), Dylan Tonkery (LB), and Jonn Young (P).

--Others that have played and will not redshirt: Junior offensive lineman Isaiah Hardy, Junior wide receiver Dominique Maiden

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The line of scrimmage will be a key element in this match up.

POINTS TO CLICK:

--Get the Waco monkey off the back. Yes, Baylor has struggled this season – not winning a game through the first six will do that for you. But there is no denying that the Bears have played much better at home and have been in every single game this year with a chance to win. On the flipside, West Virginia has never won in Waco and has been beaten soundly in the previous two trips with an average loss of almost 30-points per contest while giving up close to 70-points per game. No, this isn’t the typical explosive Baylor offensive attack but the Bears have shown that they can still score points surpassing the 40-point barrier twice this season already. If West Virginia truly wants to factor into the conference championship race this is a game that the Mountaineers can’t lose. But in order to do that they will have to do something that’s avoided them in the previous two trips – beat the Bears on the road.

--Start fast. The best way to avoid letting a team that you’re favored against to believe it has a chance to win, especially on the road – is play your way into it. By that I mean a sluggish start that allows the opponent to get momentum and make a game tight if that continues into the fourth quarter. While Baylor has yet to get a win this season, the Bears have been close in five games. This is a team that is more than capable of beating West Virginia if the Mountaineers come out lethargic. Head Coach Matt Rhule has won 25 straight games when his team is leading or tied in the fourth quarter and is 26-4 overall in those type of situations. Don’t let the Bears hang around.

--Establish the run. Baylor is struggling to stop the run, giving up 241 yards per game on the ground a mark that is near the bottom of college football. West Virginia was able to effectively run the football through the first five games, but struggled a week ago against Texas Tech generating only 44 yards, the worst mark since the season opener against Alabama in 2014. It will be key for the Mountaineers to get the running game jumpstarted in this one, getting senior running back Justin Crawford back in the groove and helping to provide the balance that has made this offense one of the nation’s best.

--Stop the run. This Baylor team will attempt to establish a power run game and control the line of scrimmage and while the transition from the spread offense to that has come slow, the Bears still are plenty capable of moving the football on the ground. The Mountaineers are allowing 210 yards per game themselves and if the defense can keep Baylor behind the chains it will allow defensive coordinator Tony Gibson to bring a number of exotic looks and pressures to get after quarterback Zach Smith. The sophomore has played well at times, but also has been turnover prone in the face of pressure. West Virginia can get to that point if it can win up front.

--Use your experience. Baylor is one of the youngest teams in the nation with 16 true freshmen that have played in games this season and a total of ten on the depth chart with multiple starters on both sides of the ball. West Virginia has been in a position of being the younger team in this matchup before, but the Mountaineers will have an advantage in experience and can use that to its advantage. Emotions will run high here, but the Mountaineers should be prepared to handle it on both sides.

--Special teams. Just go ahead and take out a space for this point every week, because it’s going to be there. Special teams have been a sore subject at times this year for West Virginia as the Mountaineers have struggled in different areas throughout the year. However, the unit is coming off a solid performance against Texas Tech with only a 27-yard punt to give the Red Raiders a short field and a conversion on a fake punt where they might have been a hold that was not called. Kickoff team was better, redshirt senior Mike Molina connected on his longest field goal attempt of the year and the punt return team generated 23-yards, 16 less than all of last season. Things are progressing but the Mountaineers must continue to play well if they want to win on the road.

--Turnovers. West Virginia is 83-12 since 2002 when winning the turnover battle which is a very telling sign. The Mountaineers will need to take care of the football if they want to win this game on the road. The best way to give a team that isn’t as talented some life is to literally give the football to them. West Virginia can’t afford to play sloppy on the road against a Baylor team that hasn’t won all season.

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