By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Still unsettled at quarterback, West Virginia University finally comes to the end of the Murderer’s Row of a schedule it has played as it faces unbeaten No. 15/16 Texas Tech at noon today in its annual homecoming game at Milan Puskar Stadium.
The unranked Mountaineers bring a 3-3 record into the game against the 6-0 Red Raiders, the high point being a stunning 30-21 upset of then No.11 Oklahoma State their last home game and the low point being a 73-42 loss at then No. 17 Baylor, giving up the second most points in the program’s history.
To make the challenge even bigger, coach Dana Holgorsen claimed his choice of quarterback would be a game-time decision between Clint Trickett, the expected starter, and Paul Millard, while Ford Childress is out “indefinitely” with a torn pectoral injury.
Each quarterback has started twice, each won one game and lost the second.
Of course, not naming a quarterback could be a cat-and-mouse game being played with Texas Tech’s exciting young first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who got his first coaching job from Holgorsen and who roomed with Holgorsen when the two were assistants at Houston.
Kingsbury had held back naming his quarterback from between Michael Brewer and Baker Mayfield, both of whom have played in five of the six games to date, Brewer with a 136.02 QB efficiency rating, Mayfield at a 136.32 rating.
Millard possesses a 132.13 rating while Trickett is at 91.35, but he has been playing with an injured throwing shoulder that was said to be improved this week.
While the season can be painted as disappointing to date, some of it can be blamed on a schedule-maker that lined up the Big 12s top teams, save for Texas, through the season’s first half.
“This is the fourth time we have played an undefeated and ranked team in the Big 12,” said Holgorsen during his weekly Tuesday press briefing. “The challenge is large, but I can assure you we are up for the challenge and will put our best foot forward, not only in preparation but also on game day on Saturday.”
“We started talking about that back in January,” defensive coordinator Keith Patterson admitted. “It’s the Big 12. You beat Oklahoma State, then you have an undefeated team waiting on you. It’s no different now. We have another undefeated team. Texas Tech is a Top-15 team in the country.”
“It’s actually good,” linebacker Isaiah Bruce said of facing so many ranked teams. “It gives us a chance to bring them down a level. It definitely makes us step up our game – going against an undefeated team. It just makes us want to play even harder.”
Other than in the Baylor game, WVU’s defense had played soundly, much improved over last season when WVU set almost as many records for defensive futility as it set for offensive production with Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey as the centerpieces of the offense.
Now they try to get back against a team averaging 41.8 points a game and with a throwing offense that is very similar to the offense Holgorsen runs when he has all the proper parts.
“Offensively, it is something that we know very well,” Holgorsen said. “Obviously, I have a history with Kliff, and I know what he has done offensively and how he operates. We are both cut from the same cloth. So, we are going to know what they do offensively. Obviously, the challenge is to stop it.”
Perhaps the thing that separates Texas Tech from most spread teams is the presence of spectacular tight end Jace Amaro, a 6-5, 260-pound weapon who has emerged as the Red Raiders’ top receiver with 47 catches in six games after catching just 25 in seven games last year.
“He is big, fast and strong, and he blocks well and catches well. He is pretty good. He should come out after his junior year,” Holgorsen said … hopefully. “What happened last year is that we injured him so he had to come out (of the game), and he was on the shelf the rest of the year. This year he has been hard to contain.”
His improvement has not surprised the Mountaineers.
“We saw it up close and personal last year. He is a guy that can do a lot of different things. He creates a tremendous amount of mismatches not just for us but everybody they have played since then,” Holgorsen said. “I do not know how to stop him; you try to double-cover him, but that opens up room for some other good skill guys as well. He poses a lot of problems, and they have done a good job at utilizing him to get first downs and open up things for some other people.”
“First of all, it’s his size and his ability to run (that makes him different),” Patterson said. “He bodies up on you, so even though you have good position, he can go over the top of you and catch the football. He’s obviously a different type of challenge than someone who has great speed. He’s very physical. He’s a great blocker. He poses so many challenges from not only catching the football, but also blocking in the run game.”
That will put a lot of pressure on the linebackers and safeties, but mostly the pressure rests on an offense that has not been able to develop a personality all season because of the lack of a regular starting quarterback.
“We have done a pretty good job in my opinion of getting the play started in the run game but have not done a great job at getting the play started in the pass game. They have to go hand-in-hand — in order to be a good offensive football team, you have to be able to do both,” Holgorsen said.
“We have had a more difficult time in the pass game for a lot of different reasons. That is not an excuse to not being successful; we have to focus on that, and we have focused on it. We have inexperienced guys all around. When it comes to running routes, catching balls and timing with the quarterbacks because the quarterbacks are inexperienced or because we are playing three of them, whatever it is, we have to get better at it and get the play started and be able to take advantage of plays down the field when teams crowd the box and try to take the run away from us.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.