MORGANTOWN — It is rare, 10 games into a football season, when a matchup of two unranked teams carrying losing records has as much at stake as Saturday’s showdown between Texas and West Virginia
Kickoff for the 2021 final game at Mountaineer Field is at noon with ESPN2 being the national outlet.
This meeting — which could be the last between the two teams as Texas is joining Oklahoma and jumping to the SEC, a move scheduled for 2025 but which could possibly come earlier — was on the verge of becoming an intense rivalry as feelings between the two schools have been bubbling over ever since Mountaineers’ quarterback Will Grier flashed a “Horns Down” signal to the Longhorns faithful after scoring a game-winning two-point conversion three years ago.
Time, of course, not been kind to either school, Texas fired Tom Herman and replaced him with Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, and WVU entrusted its climb to Neal Brown.
Both now sit on the hot seat with identical 4-6 records and rising disenchantment among their fan base. Texas has lost its last five games in a row and WVU has lost five of its last seven games and has scored just 20 points over its last two losses to Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
The loser of this game, at which WVU’s 13 seniors will be honored, will have no way to reach the necessary 6 regular season victories to qualify for a bowl and the winner will still have to win its final game, in West Virginia’s case that being a road game at Kansas, which is coming off its stunning overtime upset of Texas last week as a 31-point underdog.
The approach Neal Brown is taking to the final days of his third year at West Virginia is a simply straightforward one.
“It’s not too late to play good football,” he said during his weekly press conference.
To Brown, this isn’t about beating Texas or working toward bowl qualification, nothing so complicated as that.
“It’s about us,” he said. “We have got to play quality football. If you do that the outcomes take care of themselves.”
Brown has never been able to get his offense uncranked this season, getting inconsistent quarterback play and suffering the fate that most coaches suffer when they have inexperienced, young offensive lines.
“We’ve played good football in spots this year, but we haven’t been consistent which I promise doesn’t piss anyone off more than me,” Brown said. “Our lack of consistency is extremely frustrating.”
Certainly, his opposite number, Sarkisian, could be saying the same thing. As with all Texas teams, he has a lot of talent but transitioning it into a winning team has been hard.
That has left the two teams in positions they never would have imagined coming into the season.
Texas has a high-flying offense, ranked 18th in scoring in the nation at 37.8 points per game, but has been unable to stop opponents, its defense ranked 103rd, gave up 32.7 points a game.
“Coach Sarkisian does a really good job of changing his looks up each week,” Brown said. “You can tell it’s easy for them, it’s easy for the quarterback but it’s hard to defend, a lot of motions and shifts pre-snap and just difficult to defend because they stress you.
“They do a really good job of stressing you and getting their best players in some key situations,” Brown continued. “Casey Thompson, the quarterback, he’s a dual-threat guy who does a really good job of ad-libbing and making big plays.”
WVU, like so many teams, goes into this game banged up, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Already without cornerback Nicktroy Fortune, WVU lost linebacker Exree Loe for the rest of the season in the loss to K-State.
“We’ve got a thin roster at some spots. Saint McLeod’s going to play more to relieve Jackie Matthews at spear. He played in the game on Saturday. Lance Dixon, I would say is highly questionable for the game, I’m not ruling him out but I’d say he’s questionable,” Brown said.
Backup quarterback Garrett Greene will return from injury after missing last week’s game and Brown hopes that wide receiver Sean Ryan will be able to play, but he has gotten a boost from the wide receiver play of freshman Kaden Prather, who will see extended action in this game after catching four passes for 60 yards last week.
With Brown emphasizing that the game is about WVU, expect for him to try and find ways to utilize running back Leddie Brown in numerous ways on his Senior Day, hoping to relieve some pressure on quarterback Jarret Doege.
If he can do that, he can take advantage of what has emerged as the strongest position on the field for WVU, its wide receivers led by Bryce Ford-Wheaton. Winston Wright, Sam James and now Prather, who they believe is a budding star.
Much emphasis this week was placed on fixing special teams play, which at one time had been a strength of the Mountaineers but recently has fallen on difficult times.
“Kansas State absolutely dominated us on special teams and that was embarrassing to me,” Brown said.
The coverage teams did not tackle well and WVU gave up a touchdown on a blocked punt.
Follow @bhertzel on Twitter