By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
What arguably is the biggest sports weekend of the year here reaches its high point tonight as Texas comes to town for the first time to play West Virginia University in a football game that could have implications on the Big 12 championship.
The first home night game of the year, played before what is expected to be a highly charged, sold-out crowd in Milan Puskar Stadium, kicks off at 7 p.m. and caps off a weekend that saw men’s and women’s basketball seasons begin the previous night at the Coliseum.
WVU (4-5, 2-4) comes into the game off its first road victory of the year at TCU, putting it back in contention to qualify for a bowl. WVU must win two of its final three games to finish at .500, a strong reality now with dates with conference bottom feeders Kansas and Iowa State sitting behind Texas (6-2, 5-0).
But even though this a crucial matchup for the Longhorns, who have shaken off a dismal start to win five straight Big 12 games to leave them tied for the league lead, it is not a game WVU has to lose.
To begin with, Texas has never beaten WVU, losing its only two football meetings in history, including last year’s 48-45 game in Austin. WVU being at home, of course, is a large extra advantage, and with Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Baylor still lying ahead, there really is no telling just how good Texas really is.
Texas got off to a 1-2 start and had large defensive problems before making at change at coordinator. Coach Mack Brown, whose job was teetering in jeopardy and is hardly sound today after Steve Patterson beat out WVU’s Oliver Luck for the athletic director’s spot, named former Syracuse head coach Greg Robinson to the position, and things changed immediately.
“They have simplified things,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. “Before they would try different things on third down by getting into different fronts. It comes down to getting off blocks, holding your gaps, playing with effort, being physical and making tackles.
“They have gotten better in all those things.”
They did it by relying on the superior athletes they recruit rather than by trying to fool opponents.
“The scheme has not changed much. You cannot change things a lot, because guys can get confused. The biggest thing is getting guys out there to just play, which is something they have accomplished,” Holgorsen said.
“They made a defensive coaching change,” WVU quarterback Clint Trickett said. “Since then they are pretty basic. They are pretty much playing man coverage all the time, which is pretty smart because they have some pretty good cover guys.
“As a whole, these guys match up pretty well. They are highly recruited, highly talented guys.”
What has changed has been WVU’s offensive approach. With Trickett having won the quarterback spot after transferring from Florida State but not yet having grasped the full extent of Holgorsen’s offense, WVU has had to limit some of what it does.
That has led the Mountaineers into making running the ball more a staple of the offense, which has put versatile running back Charles Sims into the key role. Sims is WVU’s leading rusher, beginning to push toward a 1,000-yard season, and the second-leading receiver, one reception shy of the team lead.
The running attack was solid against TCU and seems to be the direction WVU is headed in the near future, especially since Texas stands third in pass defense in the Big 12, although that is a figure that may not be quite as strong as it looks not having yet played Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.
“We are trying to show improvement,” Holgorsen said of his offense. “There are so many guys who have not played. You need to have some success in order to build your confidence up and be productive. If we do have the right frame of mind, the right attitude and the effort to keep playing, then eventually the continuity will get better.
“Things are starting to come together. You can easily go back just as much as you went forward, so we need to get back to practice; building unity, continuity, trust and try to show improvement. That is what is important to me, and I think we accomplished that last week.”
But carrying it over is crucial to the team’s development down the stretch.
WVU’s defense stood strong against the run last weekend, holding TCU to just 60 rushing yards, but faces an even tougher challenge against Texas.
“Offensively, they have settled in to who they are. They are a physical team. Probably the most physical team we have played up until this point,” Holgorsen said. “They have settled in at quarterback with Case McCoy.
“They have three running backs that are all capable of being the starter. Johnathan Gray is really a good football player. Receiver-wise, you can say that they have (Texas junior wide receiver) Jaxon Shipley and (Texas senior wide receiver) Mike Davis, but they have six other guys that are productive as well.
“I studied their offense a week ago preparing for TCU’s defense. What I saw was them developing the run and then taking shots down field. Every time they took a shot down field, there was a different number catching the ball. They do not have one guy to cover; you have to cover them all. They have lots of depth and skill.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.