The Mountaineers are ranked No. 7 in the country and have an outside shot of reaching the College Football Playoff. They are coming off a signature win at Texas, and have much more at stake than the Frogs.
But TCU is fighting for its bowl lives down the stretch.
“Finish strong is the mentality right now,” TCU senior safety Markell Simmons said. “We’re not having the season we wanted, but you still have to go out there and finish and finish strong.”
With that being said, here’s what to watch for in Saturday’s game –
Limiting West Virginia’s chances
West Virginia has one blemish on its resume – a loss at Iowa State last month.
The Cyclones’ winning formula was pretty simple. They dominated the time of possession (37:21 to 22:39), as the Mountaineers ran just 42 offensive plays excluding penalties (15 pass attempts, 27 rushing attempts).
As TCU coach Gary Patterson said on his radio show Thursday, “The best way for them not to score is not to be on the field.”
Winning the time of possession battle has served TCU well of late. The Frogs are 20-1 when leading in that department the past four years.
It’s easier said than done, of course. TCU has to establish a running game to burn time off the clock, and the defense can’t let Will Grier and the high-octane West Virginia offense get going.
Much like with Shawn Robinson early in the season, TCU is going to endure growing pains with a young, inexperienced quarterback in Mike Collins.
Collins had an impressive game against KU two weeks ago with 351 passing yards, but regressed against K-State last week. Collins finished 17-for-33 (51.5 percent) for 218 yards with one touchdown.
TCU needs Collins to have a more KU-esque game if it is going to hang with West Virginia. The Mountaineers have a solid defense, ranking third in the Big 12, but have struggled to contain a few of the better receivers in conference play.
Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler had 107 receiving yards on six catches, Texas Tech’s Antoine Wesley had 110 receiving yards on eight catches and Texas’ Lil’Jordan Humphrey had 143 yards on nine catches.
Butler, Wesley and Humphrey are all taller receivers, so we’ll see if TCU tries to get a player such as freshman John Stephens Jr. (6-foot-5) more involved.
Patterson isn’t scared to be aggressive on third- and fourth-and-short. But the offense has struggled converting those in pivotal situations.
The Frogs are 9-for-18 on third- and fourth-and-short this season. Against K-State last Saturday, TCU RB Sewo Olonilua was stopped for no gain on a fourth-and-2 from the K-State 29 in the first half. The Frogs also didn’t convert on two third-and-1 attempts.
“We’ve struggled a little bit running the football when people get big,” Patterson said. “[Defenses] put everybody in the box and you struggle with it.”
Part of it is having a less experienced O-line compared to last season. TCU saw four significant contributors land in NFL camps from last season’s team. The most experienced returning player this season, left guard Cordel Iwuagwu, has been sidelined since the Texas game with an injury.
Asked if a more mature line is better in short-yardage situations, Patterson said: “More mature players are just better players. Period.”
Patterson made it clear he doesn’t like being the “bad guy” on his radio show, but returner KaVontae Turpin put himself in a situation where the only solution for Patterson was to dismiss him from the team.
“Everybody knows what the standards are, what you’re trying to get accomplished,” Patterson said on 92.1 Hank FM on Thursday night. “If they go outside of those lines, there are consequences.”
On the field, TCU is trying to figure out how to fill the loss of Turpin, one of the best returners in the country. The return game simply hasn’t been the same without Turpin. Freshman Derius Davis has shown promise, but also inexperience as the primary replacement for Turpin.
TCU started five of 10 drives inside its own 25 against Kansas two weeks ago, and seven of 13 drives inside the 25 against K-State last weekend.
TCU has been battling injuries since fall camp. It’s been one of those kinds of seasons where nothing has seemingly gone right on the injury front.
But Patterson has been pleased with his team’s mindset and demeanor through the adversity. The Frogs aren’t wallowing in self pity.
“This team hasn’t quit battling,” Patterson said. “We’re down a lot of guys. They haven’t quit battling. Even in the Kansas game, they didn’t quit battling. Every week you’ve got to get ready to play.”