By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The fun is over. Now the games begin for West Virginia University.
The Mountaineers asked to be in the Big 12, paid big money to be in it, and now they’re there, about to play their historic debut game at home against Baylor at noon Saturday at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium.
“It’s a new season. It’s all about the conference,” said quarterback Geno Smith, who understands exactly what’s in store after Maryland came up with a familiar defensive game plan, the same game plan that Big East teams like Syracuse and Connecticut used to slow the Mountaineers.
“They will come with the same game plan Maryland had, I expect, which is to pressure us and try to throw us off.”
The Big 12 Conference, which welcomes both WVU and TCU this season, is a league known for its offense. Indeed, it spits out Heisman Trophy winners and Biletnikoff Trophy winners the way a baseball player spits out the shells of sunflower seeds.
But it is a league that is improving through improvised defenses, a league that can produce a game like last Saturday night’s stunner, a 24-19 upset in Norman, Okla., by Kansas State a year after the Wildcats were torched for 58 points by Oklahoma.
Blitzing — all-out, sell-out blitzes — are becoming a way of life in the Big 12 in response to the ridiculous numbers such passing attacks as Baylor last year with Heisman winner Robert Griffin III and Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden were putting up.
WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson expects more of the same, but he really isn’t sure what to expect, just as Maryland was a huge mystery going it.
“It was a guessing game,” Dawson said of preparation. “They hadn’t played anyone who ran a formation we run.”
And while some conferences have an offensive footprint — throwing the ball being such in the Big 12 — it is not the same on defense.
“Defenses change week to week. No conference has an overall identity,” Dawson said.
Because of that he isn’t quite certain what Baylor will throw at him, but he knows that the Bears have a big advantage.
“Baylor has a long week to prepare,” he noted, referring to them having played this past Thursday. “They will probably throw in some wrinkles that they wouldn’t have in a short week.”
Seeing Maryland confound and confuse WVU at times with blitzes only makes you believe Baylor will follow suit.
“Teams have been doing that my entire life, so we have to prepare for it,” Smith said of the blitzing. “I think that’s a trend against our offense because we have a really good offense, and in order to stop it you have to throw it off really good rhythm.”
Oddly, Maryland’s blitz probably did more to affect the WVU running game, which produced only 25 yards in 25 carries, something even a calculus major can figure out to be 1.0 yards per carry, than it did the passing game.
Smith believes the coaching staff will go to work hard on that before doing anything else.
“We have to find out ways to run it versus the blitz. I’m sure coach Gillespie and (Bill) Bedenbaugh and the offensive line will come up with a plan to counter that,” the quarterback said.
Smith isn’t even sure that Baylor will run much of what it has done in its previous games this season.
“If you come out with the same defense you ran last week against us we’ll find weaknesses and exploit them,” Smith vowed. “The good thing Maryland did ... was mix up the coverages and try to rattle our domes, which they didn’t do.”
What the Terps did do, though, was limit what coach Dana Holgorsen’s offense could do. Smith didn’t have time to pass. They made life miserable for receiver Stedman Bailey and took away the run.
“They mixed it up and made us make disciplined reads,” Smith said.
Seeing that on film, Baylor surely will try to use some of it to its advantage.
The defense is not the only problem, though, for Baylor’s offense is terribly similar to WVU’s, which has to put a burden on the Mountaineers’ defense.
“Baylor does as good a job as anyone on tempo,” explained defensive coordinator Joe DeForest, who faced them during his long tenure at Oklahoma State. “Basically, we are going to face our offense now.
“Our kids have to get ready for it. They see it every day in practice, but there’s a difference. There’s a little more sense of urgency in the game because it’s faster.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.