By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
“Whoever wins this game is going to go to a bowl game. Whoever loses is likely not going to go to a bowl game.”
– West Virginia University defensive tackle Shaq Rowell.
This is an important game.
Forget the records when West Virginia University takes the field in Fort Worth, Texas, at 3:30 p.m. today to face TCU. Forget WVU is 3-5 and 1-4 in Big 12 play and that TCU is the same. Forget that these are the two newcomers to the Big 12 and finding out that the grass on the other side of the fence really is greener.
The winner of this game needs to find two victories in its final three games to go to a bowl game.
The loser will have to win out or do its bowling in a bowling alley.
And things do not look good for WVU.
First off, the Mountaineers are on the road, where they have not won, having been outscored, 164-51, away from Milan Puskar Stadium.
Secondly, they are putting a struggling offense against one of the conference’s top defenses, never considered a good formula for victory.
Coach Dana Holgorsen understands what he and his team are up against.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “We have to be able to move the ball. We have to be able to get it into the end zone.”
They are coming off a game in which they scored 12 points against Kansas State.
“We can’t score 12 points and beat many people,” offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson admits.
Yet how will they score?
Clint Trickett has won the quarterback job but only one game. He has shown great heart, great courage, but has had an injured arm and failed to grasp the full concept of Holgorsen’s offense.
Put that together against this defense, and you have major problems.
“They’re good against the run, great against the pass. They play the ball in the air very well,” Holgorsen said. “They have tremendous depth and play a lot of people, and it will be a challenge for our offense. As everybody is well aware, we haven’t been playing winning football on offense.”
To move the ball, Trickett is going to need time to pass, which may be difficult. The offensive line is a work in progress, and Pat Eger, called “the heart and soul” of the offensive line by Holgorsen, left the last game with an ankle sprain.
He’s expected to try to play this game – considering the importance of it – but whether he will be 100 percent or not is anyone’s guess. Rest assured TCU will test him.
The Horned Frogs are special when it comes to rushing the passer. They lead the conference in sacks, 24 of them compared to 10 by WVU, which ranks last in the Big 12. Three TCU players have three sacks each, so you can’t focus on any one of them.
“They do a great job of rushing the passer. Their secondary matches routes and covers as well as I’ve ever seen it,” Holgorsen said. “The quarterback has to sit back there with nowhere to throw, and the rush gets there.”
The pressure forces mistakes against a solid secondary, perhaps the best coverage secondary in the Big 12.
Jason Verrett is an All-American who, since the start of the 2012 season has more passes defended (36) than any player in the nation and shut down two high-profile receivers in LSU’s Odell Beckham, who caught one pass for 8 yards, and Texas Tech’s Eric Ward, who did not catch a pass.
Ideally, if WVU is to make headway against TCU, it will have to rush the ball well with Charles Sims, who was used mostly in the passing game last week, and Dreamius Smith, who never got untracked against Kansas State.
If they can establish a run, it could cut back on the pass rush and draw safeties up, which could expose a weakness to deep passes that Texas exposed last week with a 65-yard scoring pass and 224 yards on just nine completions in the game.
TCU’s offense has been disappointing, much as has WVU’s this year.
“Offensively, TCU is searching a bit for offense,” Holgorsen said. “They have great skill. They have three good running backs. They have great wide receivers. They obviously are going to play two different quarterbacks. I think everyone in the conference is dealing with the same kinds of things.”
That sounds good, but TCU is averaging only 23.0 points a game – 14.2 in Big 12 games – which shows something amiss that WVU should be able to explore.
The two-quarterback concept isn’t like the one WVU faced last week at K-State, where there was a running QB and a passing one.
“Whichever quarterback is in there, they typically do the same things, which will make it easier for us to prepare,” Holgorsen said. “With that said, it’s about making plays. We need to continue to make plays and put our guys into critical situations to make plays.”
Perhaps the most dangerous mismatch between the teams is in special teams, where TCU leads the Big 12 in kickoff returns and is fourth in punt returns while the Mountaineers rank last in both departments.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.