Quarterback Clint Trickett and the West Virginia Mountaineers scored an impressive 40-37 victory over Maryland on Saturday, putting the rest of the Big 12 on notice.
The box score is generally the first place casual fans go to get a feel for what happened in the game, and Trickett's 511 passing yards to go along with his four touchdown throws are eye-popping indeed. Of course, it's only slightly better than par for the course for head coach Dana Holgorsen's lead weapon, who also had 300-yard games against Alabama and Towson in the first two weeks of the 2014 season.
But the real reason this is more than just a close victory over a middling Maryland squad is because of how the Mountaineers fought through adversity away from home, something the 2013 team would not have done.
After jumping out to a 28-6 lead, the Mountaineers saw the 22-point margin get trimmed down to just seven early in the fourth quarter before a William Likely punt return evened the score at 37. From then on, it became a matter of who wanted it more, and the Mountaineers defense held strong.
Maryland had the ball twice with a chance to take a lead, and both times the Terrapins went three-and-out. Instead of relying on Trickett to lead the offense on the final drive, Holgorsen went with a heavy dose of Dreamius Smith on the ground.
On 2nd-and-11 from their own 34, a 17-yard-pass from Trickett to Daikiel Shorts helped move the ball over midfield, and a 10-yard Dustin Garrison run moved the offense to the edge of field-goal range. Several small gains later, the Mountaineers were in a position to finish things off. Josh Lambert obliged, knocking a 47-yard field goal through the uprights as time expired.
When the dust settles at the end of the season, no one will point to a road victory over Maryland as a major accomplishment, but it signals to the rest of the conference that West Virginia is no longer a pushover.
While Trickett will undoubtedly capture headlines with his video-game numbers, don't ignore the 183 yards on the ground by West Virginia or the fact that Smith was able to churn out several tough runs during crunch time with Rushel Shell apparently dinged up.
Seeing Holgorsen's offense find its groove through the air is scary in itself, but if the Mountaineers can run the ball enough to force linebackers to keep an eye on the backfield, the points should continue to come fast and easy.
Don't forget, this is a Mountaineers team that had a real chance to knock off Alabama in the season opener. Trickett and company weren't able to come up with the plays necessary to steal the game late, but the 6'2" 186-pound senior did throw for 365 yards and a score with no turnovers.
Those are numbers that most quarterbacks who've played the Crimson Tide the past few years would be jealous of, and you'd expect the trend to continue in conference play.
Conference play, oh by the way, starts next week with a home game against Oklahoma. The Sooners will be coming off a game against an improved Tennessee squad, and if Bob Stoops' team plays like they're up against the Mountaineers of 2013, it could be in for a rude awakening.
After the contest against the fourth-ranked Sooners, West Virginia will alternate playing home and away, starting with Kansas in Morgantown, followed by Texas Tech, Baylor, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas, Kansas State and Iowa State.
Circle the Oct. 18 game against Baylor as well as the Nov. 20 matchup with Kansas State, which comes on a Thursday. Could those contests have implications in the race for the Big 12 title?
Next week should give us a clear answer to that question. Until then, it's time for the rest of the Big 12 to take notice of what Trickett and the Mountaineers are doing. Of course, the naysayers will continue to point to the defense, as was the case in 2012 with Geno Smith at the helm.
But holding the Tide to 33 is nothing to scoff at, and the late stops against the Terps ultimately paved the way for the offense to drive down the field and score the winning points. Again, this is a unit that we'll learn more about in a week when the Sooners come to town. But there are definitely signs that this is not the same team that gave up 63 points and 700 yards to Baylor in 2012.
Just look at how the third-down defense improved throughout Saturday's game:
As is the case with every team in the college football, the health of key players will play the biggest role in how far it goes and how many wins are piled up. Shell is the type of player defenses have to prepare for, and any sort of prolonged absence will likely clip the wings of the high-flying offense.
For now, Mountaineers fans can be happy that competitive football is not just on the horizon, it's arrived and ready for exciting league contests to begin. Will that excitement include a major upset or perhaps even a bid for the Big 12 title?
A win next week would be a step in the right direction.