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Big 12 preview: West Virginia, Holgorsen need breakthrough season

Kevin French/Icon Sportswire

Of the two newest members of the Big 12 Conference, West Virginia has yet to achieve the success TCU has enjoyed. The Horned Frogs tied for the league title in 2014 and are 23-3 the last two seasons.

The Mountaineers entered the Big 12 after a run of success in the Big East Conference. WVU had seven consecutive seasons of nine or more wins, but in four seasons of Big 12 play West Virginia’s top victory total is eight.

This season might become a referendum on coach Dana Holgorsen’s tenure. The offensive guru should have a team capable of scoring points, but rebuilding a defense that was stout last season could be the deciding factor if West Virginia wins more than eight games.

Senior quarterback Skyler Howard is a scrappy competitor who needs to improve his accuracy. He averaged 14.2 yards per completion last season, but that was countered by his 54.8 completion rate. He also threw 14 interceptions.

“We have big-play potential,” Holgorsen said. “It’s the intermediate stuff that has to improve. We’re working hard on it. I think it’s improving, being able to make plays in tight space on critical downs.”

The Mountaineers have a veteran offensive line in front of Howard, plus plenty of playmakers in the backfield and at wide receiver. West Virginia had its best success running the ball, but in its season-saving Cactus Bowl victory over Arizona State, it had to resort to the passing game: Howard set a bowl record with 532 yards passing and five touchdowns.

“Being multiple,” Holgorsen said, “is what you need to do. The key to being good offensively is if you have to up and throw the ball 85 percent of the time, like we did against Arizona State, then you need to be effective and be able to do it. If you need to be able to run the ball 85 percent of the time based on coverages and (defenses) having a lid on it, then you need to be able to do it. I think we’re there.”

West Virginia had 41 drives of three or fewer plays that ended with a punt or a turnover. Last season’s veteran defense could handle quick returns to the field, but this year’s defensive unit could benefit from the offense controlling the ball more.

Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson favors organized chaos with his unique 3-3-5 alignment. The Mountaineers love to confuse quarterbacks with varied blitz schemes. That typically works better with a veteran unit, but WVU has to replace its three starting linebackers and four of the five starters in the secondary.

“I’m very confident we’re going to find the players,” Holgorsen said. “The trick is going to be is finding a way for the guys to play the system and play well together. I’ve got confidence in Gibby being able to get that done. The defense looks the same to me. If you look at the first-string defense right now, it’s made up of juniors and seniors.”

West Virginia at a glance

2015: 8-5 overall, 4-5 in the Big 12, tied for fifth place

Coach: Dana Holgorsen

Returning starters: 8 starters on offense, 4 on defense

Impact players: Sr. QB Skyler Howard, Sr. RB Rushel Shell, Jr. WR Shelton Gibson, Sr. WR Daikiel Shorts, Jr. OG Kyle Bosch, Sr. OG Adam Pankey, Sr. C Tyler Orlosky, Sr. DE Noble Nwachukwu, Sr. DE Christian Brown, Sr. S Jarrod Harper, Sr. S Jeremy Tyler

05 September 2015: West Virginia Mountaineers QB?Skyler Howard (3) runs with the football during the first quarter of the game between the Georgia Southern Eagles and the West Virginia Mountaineers at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, WV. West Virginia defeated Georgia Southern 44-0.

05 September 2015: West Virginia Mountaineers QB Skyler Howard (3) runs with the football during the first quarter of the game between the Georgia Southern Eagles and the West Virginia Mountaineers at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, WV. West Virginia defeated Georgia Southern 44-0. — Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire

3 reasons to hope

  • Skyler Howard is a senior in his third season in the system. Holgorsen seems to have his best successes when he works with a senior quarterback. Howard needs to improve on his accuracy; he completed just 54.8 percent of his passes last season. Howard needs to hit 60 percent or better for the offense to percolate.
  • The offensive line should be one of the best in the Big 12. Four starters return, led by senior center Tyler Orlosky and junior guard Kyle Bosch. The unit was outstanding when blocking in the run game, and if it improves in pass protection, WVU’s offense will have a solid foundation.
  • The schedule sets up well, particularly in Big 12 play. Even-numbered years are the favorable ones in WVU’s schedule rotation. TCU, Oklahoma and Baylor all have to come to Morgantown. Two years ago, the Bears’ loss at Milan Puskar kept them out of the inaugural College Football Playoff. There’s an excellent chance that WVU will win at least one of those three games.

3 reasons to worry

  • West Virginia plays a 3-3-5 defensive scheme that relies on the linebackers and the secondary. All three starting linebackers and four of the five starters in the secondary must be replaced. The depth in the secondary already has been drained with the loss of safety Dravon Askew-Henry.
  • Holgorsen declined to negotiate a new contract before the season and is considered to be on the “hot seat.” He reworked his staff in the offseason, hiring former Texas assistant Joe Wickline as offensive coordinator, Tyron Carrier as wide receivers coach, and Blue Adams and Matt Caponi to work with the secondary.
  • Senior Josh Lambert, one of the most reliable kickers in the Big 12, is ineligible for the first three games (Missouri, Youngstown State and BYU). Lambert was a finalist for the Groza Award in 2014; last season he made 21 of 28 field goal tries. Junior Mike Molina will handle the kicking until Lambert returns.
Rushel Shell -- Icon Sportswire

Rushel Shell — Icon Sportswire

Difference maker on offense: Rushel Shell. Holgorsen’s system is much more effective when the running game produces. WVU ran it 60 percent of the time last season and Wendell Smallwood led the Big 12 in rushing. Shell, a 5-foot-10, 220-pound senior, has been waiting in the wings to become a starter.

Difference maker on defense: Noble Nwachukwu. A disruptive defensive end is a great way to help a defense with a lot of uncertainty. The 6-foot-2, 275-pound senior had team highs in sacks (8.5) and tackles for loss (13). He’s difficult to stop one-on-one, which means he’ll draw double-teams and allow other defenders to make plays.

It’s a fact: Over its last 25 games, West Virginia has only won three times when it has allowed 30 or more points. Last season, the Mountaineers were 1-4 in such games, and the only victory was their 43-42 Cactus Bowl win over Arizona State.

Projected final record: 8-4. The Mountaineers have been in a rut since joining the Big 12. For West Virginia to win more than eight games, it will need to sweep its non-conference games and then pull an upset of one of the league’s top teams. That’s within reach.

2016 Schedule

Date Opponent
Sept. 3 Missouri
Sept. 10 Youngstown State
Sept. 24 BYU (at Landover, Md.)
Oct. 1 Kansas State*
Oct. 15 at Texas Tech*
Oct. 22 TCU*
Oct. 29 at Oklahoma State*
Nov. 5 Kansas*
Nov. 12 at Texas*
Nov. 19 Oklahoma*
Nov. 26 at Iowa State*
Dec. 3 Baylor*
* – Conference game
Big 12 preview: West Virginia, Holgorsen need breakthrough season

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