If the title of this article made you snicker, I don’t blame you.
“What about Oklahoma, slick? How about those guys?”
Yeah, the Sooners are good, and potentially the best of the bunch in the Big 12. But this is Texas week and the outcome of this game is going to answer every question the pundits have leveled at West Virginia over the course of the season. Win and the Mountaineers prove they have the grit and determination to best a blue blood on the road in the thick of conference play. Lose and the national media will brand Dana Holgorsen’s team a paper tiger unworthy of challenging Oklahoma for the league crown.
This is a must-win with almost everything will on the line for the 6-1 Mountaineers. Here’s why it’s so important.
- A big game can put Will Grier back in the thick of the Heisman race: I’ve spoken before about how easy it is to approach college football with a fatalist mindset. For instance, it took only one down performance against Iowa State for just about everyone to write off Will Grier’s Heisman odds overnight. A bad game is a bad game but it does not and should not define an entire season. Be that as it may, Grier needs a marquee win to restore his early-season gilding and once again endear himself in the eyes of Heisman voters. The Longhorns currently rank 54th nationally in team defense and have only given up more than 300 yards through the air three times over the course of eight games which, as far as life in the Big 12 goes, is pretty good. Texas is big, it’s fast and it’s physical. In front of a home crowd, Texas will be anything but an easy out. If Grier can produce another 350+ yard, four TD performance a la Baylor on national TV down in Austin, the Charlotte native can win back a good measure of star power heading into the home stretch of West Virginia’s schedule. Not only that, but if Grier is to gain ground on the Tua Tagovailoa’s and Kyler Murray’s of the world, he needs a signature win over a ranked team and for a born gunslinger like Grier, bagging a Longhorn down in Texas will more than do the job.
- West Virginia and Grier owe Texas one: Naked bootleg at the goal line. If reading that didn’t make you shudder, you might need to reevaluate your level of fandom. The Mountaineers were rolling last year heading into the Texas game only to lose Grier and, consequently, the rest of what looked to be a promising finish to the 2017 season. Now, it might seem a bit over the top to blame Brandon Jones for making the tackle or Todd Orlando for calling the coverage or burnt orange nation for cheering the stop at the goal line but bulletin board material, am I right? With Sam Ehlinger looking likely to start under center this week, it will be QB1 against QB1 in Austin in prime-time. Taylor Cornelius offered up a solid blueprint of how Grier can carve up Texas’ defense when he went 23/34 for 321 yards last weekend in the ‘Pokes’ narrow win over the ‘Horns. Grier would do well to follow his lead. There’s no better stage for West Virginia to settle the score with Texas after the aforementioned play that sent Grier to the sideline for the final three games last season. It’s also an ample opportunity for West Virginia to be the team that lets the rest of the country know that Texas is not quite back, not just yet.
- The running game can finally emerge when it matters most: West Virginia’s offense, outside of the Iowa State game, has been about as good as advertised this season. Will Grier is on pace to crest 40 touchdowns and at least three wide receivers (Gary Jennings, Jr, David Sills V and Marcus Simms) are within striking distance of hitting the 1,000-yard mark on the year. Apart from the prolific streak of the passing game, however, the running game has yet to really establish itself. The by-committee approach of McKoy/Pettaway/Brown/Sinkfield has looked good at times but Jake Spavital’s offense is still largely Grier-or-bust in its approach. That’s all well and good, but if you can’t win the battle on third down (see: Iowa State) and the run game can’t produce anything, then it’s bad news for the Mountaineers. Texas has some good pieces up front in Breckyn Hager and Anthony Wheeler and you can bet that with an experienced secondary, the ‘Horns will be dead-set on denying Grier looks downfield from the first snap. That means it’s on the offensive line, which has had its own issues with consistency, to open up lanes for McKoy and company. This could very well be a statement game for the Mountaineers ground attack and one that is very much needed. Remember, this is a Texas team that allowed all of -5 rushing yards against USC earlier this year. If West Virginia has plans to visit Dallas and parts beyond later this year, they’ll need to prove that it can reliably move the ball on the ground between the big pass plays Grier is known for. Texas is going to dare West Virginia to run at them. Make them regret it.
- A win in Austin makes the Oklahoma game less of a do-or-die: Let me be clear- I’m not saying West Virginia can just go out on November 23rd and take a knee against Oklahoma. No, West Virginia will DEFINITELY want to win that game. What I am saying, though, is that if the Mountaineers can take care of business on the road this weekend against Texas, then say win against TCU and Oklahoma State then lose to Oklahoma, assuming neither Texas nor Oklahoma lose any of their other games, then there’s a three-way tie in the Big 12. Ideally, the Mountaineers win out and avoid any such bottleneck atop the conference but late season conference play is ludicrous and really anything can happen. S0, simply put, beating Texas not only gives West Virginia momentum going into a home bout with a sub-par TCU team, but also gives them a meaningful win over a ranked opponent that West Virginia will want in its back pocket. Lastly, Texas is going to be the most physical match-up West Virginia likely sees through the rest of the regular season. Tough it out against them at their place and there’s no reason the Mountaineers can’t run the table.
- It’s Texas: While Oklahoma has reigned supreme in recent years, the Longhorns have scrabbled and scraped to return to relevancy and, since the end of the Colt McCoy era, have lived solely off its royalties as a blue blood without doing anything of consequence. This is the same team that lost to Maryland in its season opener and beat Tulsa and Kansas State by 12 combined points. This is the same squad that still has yet to line up against Will Grier for four quarters, healthy throwing hand and all. Yes, they beat Oklahoma and that’ll get you some well-deserved love, but since 2009 the media has been so quick to sprinkle fairy dust on the Longhorns and anoint them as being “back” that you can’t help but roll your eyes. Whatever the case and regardless on where you stand on the Longhorns, Saturday’s game is monumental for West Virginia. There’s no mistaking the value of a win and the potential crippling result of a loss. While there’s a lot of football still to be played, West Virginia might as well treat this as its bowl game. Until the clock runs out on Saturday, nothing and no one exists outside of Austin, Texas. Horns down.