It took slightly more than half the season, plus a boatload of less-than-stellar September performances by perceived front-runners, but a clear consensus finally has emerged about the Big 12 football race.
The road to a championship, for the first time in league history, runs through Morgantown, W.Va.
The undefeated Mountaineers, picked to finish seventh in the league’s preseason media poll, climbed to No. 10 in this week’s Associated Press poll heading into Saturday’s high-stakes matchup with Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla. West Virginia (6-0, 3-0 in Big 12) joins No. 8 Baylor (6-0, 3-0) and No. 16 Oklahoma (5-2, 4-0) on the short list of teams with undefeated records in league play heading into Halloween weekend.
But only the Mountaineers, who have allowed a league-low 12 touchdowns, have shown the type of defensive pulse against quality opponents that is required to win a championship. Plus, the remaining schedule shows both Oklahoma (Nov. 19) and Baylor (Dec. 3) headed to Morgantown for games that should have title implications.
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Expect the crowds, and the weather conditions, to be highly favorable for the Mountaineers in both of those matchups. But don’t expect West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen to spend much time dwelling on a midseason run that has seen the Mountaineers hold high-scoring teams from Texas Tech (50.3 average) and TCU (35.9) to a combined 27 points in their past two outings.
We’re just … playing ball and not worrying about anything but us. We’re not letting up on the gas pedal. We’re going to keep pushing.
West Virginia quarterback Skyler Howard, a White Settlement Brewer graduate
For perspective, Oklahoma allowed a combined 105 points in shootout victories over the Red Raiders (66-59) and Horned Frogs (52-46). Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes put up more yards by himself in last week’s matchup against OU (819) than West Virginia surrendered in eight quarters against Tech (379) and TCU (300).
That’s some pretty strong evidence that West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s unique 3-3-5 scheme is the best available antidote to slow the spread offenses used by most Big 12 teams. The Mountaineers’ scheme, which is vulnerable to power running teams, allows for lots of creative blitzes and disguised coverages to confuse quarterbacks. In today’s Big 12, befuddling the opposing passer typically is the biggest step a team can take toward the win column each Saturday.
West Virginia is in its fourth season using Gibson’s scheme. A year ago, the Mountaineers allowed a league-low 33 touchdowns but finished only 8-5 during an injury-marred season for the team’s defensive stalwarts.
With better health and a user-friendly schedule in 2016, the worm is turning in West Virginia.
“Tony Gibson has done a good job and our kids have confidence,” Holgorsen said earlier this week. “We had good players last year. We replaced the guys we lost (to graduation or the NFL) and it still looks the same to me on defense. I said that in fall camp. I’m glad everyone else is starting to notice, too.”
Eventually, Baylor could be the Big 12 defense that outshines a West Virginia unit allowing 17.8 points per game. The Bears have allowed a league-low 17.2 points per game but those numbers include five matchups against low-powered offenses. Thus far, West Virginia has faced four opponents that score at least 28 points per game. Baylor has faced one.
In addition, the Mountaineers’ offense features the league’s most-improved player in quarterback Skyler Howard, a White Settlement Brewer graduate. Howard, a senior, is completing 66.5 percent of his passes, with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. A 54.8 percent passer last season, Howard has captured the attention of OSU coach Mike Gundy heading into Saturday’s matchup against the Cowboys (5-2, 3-1).
We replaced the guys we lost (to graduation or the NFL) and it still looks the same to me on defense. I said that in fall camp. I’m glad everyone else is starting to notice, too.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen
“They’re playing considerably different this year than last year,” Gundy said. “They’ve always had a good defense. But the quarterback now is playing within the system and understands what they’re trying to accomplish. That’s the difference this year.”
Howard, who threw four touchdown passes in last week’s 34-10 victory over TCU, understands and embraces the challenge ahead.
“There’s been lots of speculation about, ‘Are the Mountaineers real? Do they have what it takes to continue with their success?’” Howard said after the TCU game. “We’re just … playing ball and not worrying about anything but us. We’re not letting up on the gas pedal. We’re going to keep pushing.”
That may be enough to get the Mountaineers across the finish line to their first Big 12 title. Even with a loss Saturday to OSU (possible), the Mountaineers still would be well-positioned to represent the league in the Sugar Bowl because OU and Baylor make late-season trips to Morgantown.
A cautious Holgorsen concedes the midseason vibe is good after his team played its “most complete game” of the season in dispatching TCU. But he knows a loss could surface on any Saturday in this balanced league.
“You feel good about it at the end of the year if it works out the way you want,” Holgorsen said. “You’re only as good as your next game. Our team understands that. They’re not worried about rankings. They’re only worried about where we are at the end.”