Who: West Virginia Mountaineers at Texas Longhorns
When: Saturday, Oct. 6 at 7:00 PM EST
Where: Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium (Austin, TX)
Line: Texas by 6.5
The No. 8 Mountaineers (4-0) and No. 11 Longhorns (4-0) each put their unbeaten records on the line as they continue their Big 12 schedules in one of conference's marquee games of the season.
Each team has put up impressive offensive numbers this season with each ranking in the top-10 nationally in scoring offense. The biggest name in this game is West Virginia quarterback and Heisman front-runner Geno Smith, who is coming off of a career performance in which he threw for 656 yards and eight touchdowns.
Texas quarterback David Ash might have something to say about that after leading his team to a comeback win over Oklahoma State last weekend, signaling his arrival to the rest of the conference.
Here is the complete preview for this weekend's epic matchup in Austin.
QB: Geno Smith, SR
RB: Shawne Alston, SR
WR: Stedman Bailey, JR
WR: J.D. Woods, SR
WR: Jordan Thompson, FR
WR: Tavon Austin, SR
OT: Quinton Spain, SO
OT: Pat Eger, JR
OG: Josh Jenkins, SR
OG: Jeff Braun, SR
C: Joe Madsen, SR
LB: Tyler Anderson, JR
DT: Jorge Wright, SR
DE: Will Clarke, JR
NT: Shaq Rowell, JR
LB: Terence Garvin, SR
LB: Isaiah Bruce, FR
LB: Shaq Petteway, SO
CB: Pat Miller, SR
CB: Brodrick Jenkins, JR
S: Darwin Cook, JR
S: Karl Joseph, FR
QB: David Ash, SO
RB: Joe Bergeron, SO
RB: Malcolm Brown, SO
WR: Mike Davis, JR
WR: Jaxon Shipley, SO
TE: D.J. Grant, SR
OT: Donald Hawkins, JR
OT: Josh Cochran, SO
OG: Mason Walters, JR
OG: Trey Hopkins, JR
C: Dom Espinosa, SO
DE: Jackson Jeffcoat, JR
DT: Chris Whaley, JR
NT: Ashton Dorsey, JR
DE: Alex Okafor, SR
LB: Jordan Hicks, JR
LB: Steve Edmond, SO
LB: Demarco Cobbs, SO
CB: Carrington Byndom, JR
CB: Quandre Diggs, SO
S: Kenny Vaccaro, SR
S: Adrian Phillips, JR
In their first season in the Big 12 conference, the Mountaineers have lived up to the hype so far thanks to Heisman front-runner Geno Smith and an offense that can put up points at will.
Smith was expected to be good this season, but not many expected him to be this good. In his Big 12 debut, Smith threw 656 yards and a conference-record eight touchdowns. And through four games he has thrown for over 1,700 yards and 20 touchdowns with no interceptions, already drawing comparisons to last year's Heisman winner Robert Griffin III.
While Smith has been the star, he is certainly not without help on the offensive side of the ball. Wideouts Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey have made their claim as the best receiving duo in the country with 1,195 and 17 touchdowns between them.
With this type of offensive fire power there is no doubting that the Mountaineers can hang with anyone, but what about their defense? In the Mountaineers' matchup against Baylor, the first legitimate offense they've faced in the season, the defense gave up 63 points and 581 passing yards to Baylor quarterback Nick Florence.
Head coach Dana Holgorsen knows he can win the shootouts with Smith at quarterback, but he has to be worried against the better Big 12 defenses like Texas and Kansas State who both also have good offenses.
The result of this week's matchup against Texas is a good indicator of where exactly this team stacks up on the national landscape.
Through its first four games of the season, the Texas Longhorns have to be one of the most surprising teams in college football for reasons both good and bad.
Over the offseason, the Texas team was expected to boast one the nation's best rushing attacks, along with a defense that had all-time potential. Those expectations have proven to be half true so far as the three-headed rushing attack of Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron and Johnathan Gray have gained 658 yards on the ground at a 5.2-yard clip.
That's the goods news. The bad news for the Longhorns is that the defense has given up five touchdowns of 40 yards or more and gave up 576 total yards of offense last week to an Oklahoma State team that started a freshman quarterback.
This type of output from the defense should have Texas fans panicking heading into the meat of its Big 12 schedule, but there is a strange sense of optimism currently encompassing the Forty Acres. Why? Because of quarterback David Ash, that's why.
After fighting all the way until the final week of fall camp to earn the designation as the team's starting quarterback, the sophomore Ash has been absolutely on fire this season. He is the nation's second-highest rated passer behind WVU's Smith and proved that he can do it with the best of them after leading a game-winning drive against the Cowboys to open Big 12 play.
With the way Ash and the running backs have played so far, this Texas team has serious BCS potential if the defense can play up to its potential. A stout showing against the West Virginia offense could certainly get those birds chirping.
RB Shawne Alston:
After missing last week's game with a thigh bruise, senior running back and 2011 leading rusher Shawne Alston returns for the Mountaineers in a game where his services will be much needed.
With players like Texas defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor (seven sacks between them) looking to ruin Geno Smith's first visit to Austin, Alston's ability to run the ball between the tackles will be crucial to West Virginia's success on offense.
Not only will a rushing attack slow the Texas pass rush, but it will open the play action pass for Geno Smith, which would allow him to expose a Texas secondary that has given up numerous big plays to start the season.
OT Quinton Spain:
The key to West Virginia's ability to put up 70 points against Baylor was the offensive line's ability to keep their quarterback upright throughout the game. That task will be much harder against the Texas pass rush.
Spain has an unenviable task of squaring off against Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, who already has 25 tackles and three sacks on the season. Jeffcoat is a pass rush specialist that the Longhorns will unleash in order to keep Geno Smith out of rhythm. If he succeeds in pressuring Smith throughout the game, last week's 70-point performance will seem like a distant memory.
LBs Isaiah Bruce and Terence Garvin:
The Longhorns currently boast one the Big 12's best rushing attacks, and it will be up to leading tacklers Isaiah Bruce and Terence Garvin to keep the Texas rushing attack under control.
Mack Brown and his staff are going to do everything they can to eat up time on offense in order to keep the ball out of Geno Smith's hands, and they have the personnel to do just that.
Bruce and Garvin need to keep the Longhorn backs from getting to the second level and force the Longhorns to pick up first downs through the air.
Texas quarterback David Ash has been stellar to start the season, but he is not a quarterback who is comfortable airing it out for 60 minutes. Stop the run, and this Texas team will become very beatable.
DEs Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor:
In order for Texas to contend in this game, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith must not be allowed time to pick apart this Texas secondary. That is where pass rush specialists Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor come in.
It's no wonder Smith threw for 656 yards and eight touchdowns against the Baylor Bears. He was able to stand in the pocket like a statue the entire game, and there is no way anybody can cover the likes of Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin for the amount of time Smith was given to throw.
Texas has a solution to this issue in Jeffcoat and Okafor, who have been unblockable in the Longhorns' first four games. West Virginia does not have the talent on the offensive line to keep one or even both of these two out of the backfield throughout the game. And history says that Smith is turnover-prone when he is under pressure.
CB Carrington Byndom:
Going up against two of the best wide receivers in the country, the Texas secondary will have to be on its game against the Mountaineers. This is especially so for junior corner Carrington Byndom.
Byndom has been a far cry from the player that out-dueled both Justin Blackmon and Jeff Fuller a year ago, having given up two touchdowns of 75 yards or more already in 2012. The Mountaineers know that, and they will test him way before they test sophomore Quandre Diggs, who already has three picks this year.
If Byndom can be the player we all know he can be, and with the way Diggs is playing opposite him, this Texas defense has a decent shot at slowing down this West Virginia juggernaut of an offense.
WRs Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley
With the type of explosiveness West Virginia has on the offensive side of the ball, it is very possible that the Texas offense will have to air it out to keep up. This is where the services of wideouts Jaxon Shipley and Mike Davis will be much needed.
Davis and Shipley have proven that they can get downfield and make plays for quarterback David Ash. If Ash has to throw this team back into the game, it is imperative that these two get open and give him good targets downfield. Otherwise the young signal-caller could start forcing the issue and turning the ball over, which is something this team cannot afford.
There is definitely room to work with in the West Virginia secondary that saw Terence Williams shred them for 314 yards and two touchdowns in last weekend's shoot out. All these two have to do is keep doing what they have been doing.
Protect Geno Smith
The Texas defense has proven two things through its first four games of the season. The first is that it will give up the big play. The second is that they can really get after the quarterback.
The Texas defense has nine sacks so far this season and will do everything they can to keep Geno Smith from getting the ball downfield to his talented receiving corps. The offensive line has to figure out a way to slow down the Texas pass rush, or it could be a very long day for their quarterback.
Keep the Texas Defense on its Heels
For West Virginia to continue to do what it wants on offense, running the hurry-up offense has to be a major catalyst for their game plan.
Oklahoma State exposed the Longhorn defense with the hurry-up offense in the second-half, especially after defensive tackle Desmond Jackson left them thin on the front line. If West Virginia can effectively utilize a similar attack, they will wear out the Longhorn defense and force Texas to rely more heavily on inexperienced backups at linebacker and in the secondary.
Establish the Run
Texas has to do whatever it can to chew up clock and keep the ball out of Geno Smith's hands. Establishing the run will accomplish just that.
Texas was built to control the time of possession and use its attacking-style defense to keep opposing offense's off the field. Success in both areas will be imperative in this game because the West Virginia offense is a ticking time bomb.
The return of Malcolm Brown from his ankle injury would certainly help here as it would give Texas three running backs that are capable of wearing down the middle of a defense.
Get After Geno Smith
For the Longhorns to beat the Mountaineers they will have to find a way to create pressure and, in turn, force him into quick throws.
In three losses last year, Smith was sacked six times and threw four interceptions. So far this season Smith has been sacked four times but has not thrown an interception, though he has not faced the type of pressure the Longhorns are capable of bringing. In last week's record-breaking performance against Baylor, Smith was hardly touched.
The Longhorns have to put pressure on Smith and force him to get rid of the ball before he wants to, otherwise he will use Bailey and Austin to tear this team apart downfield.
Tackle, Tackle, Tackle
It's no mystery that the Longhorns have struggled finishing plays on defense due to missed tackles. They cannot afford to have that problem against the Mountaineers.
After having a full extra week to work on tackling issues that kept Wyoming and Ole Miss in the game much longer than they should have been, the Longhorns once again struggled to wrap up against Oklahoma State. In that contest, two missed tackles by Adrian Phillips gave the Cowboys touchdowns of 69 and 44 yards in the first quarter.
Baylor repeatedly missed tackles on Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin last weekend, and the result were 518 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Need I say more?
The odds may be stacked against them, but I expect the Longhorns to play some of the best football they play all season against the Mountaineers and re-establish themselves as one of the nation's best.
First, I like the Texas' ability to run the ball and control the clock against the Mountaineers. The WVU defensive line has not played against a rushing attack like that of the Longhorns and do not have the depth to hold all three Texas running backs at bay.
Also, look for David Ash to have a field day against this West Virginia secondary. This unit was horrendous against Baylor last weekend, and both Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley are playing at an extremely high level right now. Shipley's ability to find the soft spots in the defense will torment this group all night.
This game is going to come down to which defense can make a play when it counts, and the Texas defense is much more capable of doing that than is the WVU defense. The Longhorns are far too talented to continue to play the way they have, and they will get up for this one. With that said I think this group forces at least one Geno Smith turnover and keep him under pressure all night.
Why else do I like the Longhorns in this game? History.
Since taking over in 1998 Longhorns head coach Mack Brown is 16-6 against ranked opponents at home, with four of those losses coming in the last two years. And the Longhorns are much better this season than they were in either 2010 or 2011.
With an improved defensive effort and one of the most diverse offensive attacks in the country, the Longhorns will come out on top against the Mountaineers and take control of their Big 12 destiny.