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West Virginia Football: 10 Key Storylines to Watch for Against Baylor

Danny FlynnSenior Analyst IOctober 10, 2016

West Virginia Football: 10 Key Storylines to Watch for Against Baylor

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    West Virginia will finally make its Big 12 debut on Saturday when the Mountaineers host Baylor.

    All offseason long, we heard all of the chatter about the move from the Big East to the Big 12. We heard all about how West Virginia was going to show that it's ready to play with the big boys of college football. 

    Now, the journey officially begins. 

    After last week's sloppy performance against Maryland, the Mountaineers have some critics questioning whether they're really a top 10 team or not. 

    While beating the Bears may not prove that they're definitely ready to win a conference championship, a big performance against Baylor would certainly help build some momentum for the tough upcoming stretch of the season. 

    Here's a look at 10 key story lines to watch for on Saturday. 

Will the Offensive Line Step Up?

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    West Virginia's offensive line allowed just one sack in the Mountaineers' first two games against Marshall and James Madison. However, the unit fared much worse against a blitz-happy Maryland defense last week. 

    The line only allowed two sacks, but QB Geno Smith was under constant duress throughout the entire game. Smith took a couple of huge shots that had to sting. 

    The line was called for a few killer holding penalties, one of which got right tackle Pat Eger pulled from the game in the fourth quarter. 

    Maryland's A.J. Francis and Joe Vellano are better than any defensive linemen that Baylor has. But the Bears do have four defensive ends—Terrance Lloyd, Gary Mason Jr., Chris McAllister and Javonte Magee, who all know how to get to the quarterback. 

    If the line doesn't step up on Saturday, Geno Smith is going to find himself on the ground far too often once again. 

Will Geno Smith Take Advantage of Baylor’s Shaky Secondary?

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    Last year, Baylor's secondary ranked 118th in the nation in pass defense, allowing 291 yards through the air per game. 

    This season, the defensive backfield hasn't made any noticeable improvement yet.

    The Bears are currently giving up an average of 315 passing yards per game. However, you do have to factor in that the team has faced an average of 48 passes per game, which is the fourth highest total in the country. 

    Baylor seems content with employing a bend but don't break defensive philosophy. In other words, the Bears are fine with allowing underneath passes all game long. They just don't want to get beat deep for a big play.

    It will be interesting to see if QB Geno Smith and his speedy receivers can exploit the holes in Baylor's pass coverage, and turn them into big explosive passing plays. 

    Smith has displayed pinpoint accuracy so far this season, completing 81 percent of his passes for over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns without throwing an interception. 

How Big of a Factor Will Shawne Alston Be?

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    West Virginia fans were left scratching their heads during last week's game against Maryland, wondering why RB Shawne Alston wasn't seeing any action. 

    What we came to learn after the game was that Alston was limited due to a thigh bruise.

    Alston's absence had a major effect on the running game.

    Without him, the Mountaineers only totaled 25 yards on the ground on 25 rushing attempts. 

    The big, powerful senior back has been listed as day-to-day this week. But it's still uncertain just how many carries he'll see against Baylor. 

    If Alston is still slowed by the injury on Saturday, it will obviously hinder West Virginia's running game, especially in goal line and short-yardage situations. 

How Much Will Dustin Garrison Be Used?

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    Another running back to keep an eye on during the Baylor game is Dustin Garrison. 

    Last week, Garrison saw his first game action since suffering a knee injury during Orange Bowl practices back in January.

    The speedy sophomore only carried the ball twice for just one yard. Nevertheless, it was still good to see him back out there. 

    Garrison's status was a bit of a mystery at the start of the season. The coaching staff never seemed to indicate when he would return, which is why it was a surprise to see him out there last Saturday. 

    As just a true freshman last year, Garrison led the Mountaineers with 742 rushing yards. 

    Since he and fellow sophomore Andrew Buie are both similar types of backs, Buie is able to fill his role rather nicely. Still, it's definitely a boost for the offense to have a healthy Garrison in the mix. 

Can the Secondary Contain Baylor’s Receiver Trio?

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    Baylor may have lost WR Kendall Wright, the school's all-time leading receiver and the 20th overall pick in this year's NFL draft, but the Bears still have one of the most explosive receiver trios in the country comprised of Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese and Lanear Sampson. 

    The three of them have combined to catch 51 passes for 859 yards and nine touchdowns in just three games.

    Williams, who is arguably the top senior receiver prospect for the 2013 NFL draft, is the most dangerous and talented of the three. But Reese and Sampson are two players that can really stretch a defense and cause trouble for a secondary as well. 

    Last week, West Virginia's defensive backs had problems containing Maryland receivers Stefon Diggs and Marcus Leak. If the secondary doesn't step up against Baylor, Williams, Reese and Sampson are going to cause a lot of havoc on Saturday. 

Will the Bears Force Any Key Turnovers?

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    Baylor's defense has been very opportunistic so far this season. 

    The Bears have done a great job of forcing turnovers. They've picked off six passes and scooped up four fumbles in their first three games. 

    West Virginia has not had a turnover issue at all this year. The team's only turnover was an interception thrown by backup quarterback Paul Millard in the season opener against Marshall. 

    Still, the Mountaineers better be careful with the football against the Baylor defense. They simply can't afford to give away any game-changing turnovers that would swing the momentum in the Bears' favor.

Can the Mountaineers Get Pressure on Nick Florence?

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    You have to give credit to defensive coordinator Joe DeForest for coming up with a great plan to attack Maryland QB Perry Hills last week. 

    West Virginia got to Hills five times, which resulted in a negative loss of 43 yards for the Maryland offense. 

    DeForest showed that he knows how to devise and disguise blitz schemes that can confuse an offensive line. 

    The defense has to once again find a way to get pressure on Baylor QB Nick Florence on Saturday.

    The Mountaineers simply can't let Florence get comfortable in the pocket and sit back and pick apart the secondary. 

    The Bears have only allowed three sacks this season, so getting to Florence on a consistent basis will be a challenge. 

West Virginia Needs to Avoid Costly Penalties

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    Last week, West Virginia had six penalties, which cost the team 59 yards of field position. 

    Some of those infractions were holding penalties on the offensive line, which proved to be detrimental drive-killers. 

    Judging from the reaction on coach Dana Holgorsen's face after some of those calls, I have a feeling that the coaching staff addressed the issue in a rather stern manner during practice this week. 

    The Mountaineers have to make it a priority to play more disciplined on Saturday and cut down on the costly penalties. 

Can Tavon Austin Finally Break a Big Return?

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    WR Tavon Austin has looked tremendous on offense so far this season, catching 34 passes for 345 yards and five touchdowns. 

    Austin has, however, been limited in the return game. 

    The explosive senior has only averaged 21 yards on three kickoff returns and 6.8 yards on six punt returns.

    Those aren't bad numbers by any means, but compared to his 2011 averages of 26 yards on kickoff returns and 14 yards on punt returns, they obviously aren't up to his normal standards. 

    It will be interesting to see if Austin can finally break a big return against Baylor on Saturday. 

How Will West Virginia Handle the Pressure?

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    Throughout the offseason, the talk surrounding West Virginia's football program has been about showing that the Mountaineers can compete with Big 12 caliber competition. 

    Now, they finally have the opportunity to prove their worth in their league debut. 

    Sure, Baylor isn't the cream of the conference crop this year. But this is still a big statement game against a team that won 10 games last year and is currently undefeated. 

    With games against Texas, Kansas State and TCU on the horizon, West Virginia needs to start building momentum, especially after a sloppy performance against Maryland last week. 

    If the team goes out and lays another stinker on Saturday, it will be embarrassing and it will raise a lot of questions about just how ready this team is for its new conference. 

    There will be a lot of pressure on Dana Holgorsen and his players on Saturday.

    It will be interesting to see how they respond. 

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