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West Virginia heightens its status as a legitimate playoff contender

Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire

The West Virginia Mountaineers’ confidence was bolstered after they thrashed Texas Tech in Lubbock, 48-17. However, the question surrounding the Mountaineers was whether or not they can stay focused on the mission at hand instead of getting sucked into the hype surrounding their season.

The win over Texas Tech helped West Virginia start 5-0 for the first time since the 2012 season. That year, the Mountaineers climbed all the way to the No. 5 ranking in the country. However, that West Virginia squad suffered defeat in the sixth game on the slate. It wasn’t just a loss, either. It was a 49-14 bludgeoning. The team lost focus. It didn’t handle prosperity well.

This 2016 Mountaineer group wrote a different story relative to the 2012 team.

“This is a totally different team,” West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen said when asked to compare the two teams. “I think this team is a good group of kids that like each other and like playing the game. And they didn’t listen when everybody was saying we sucked, and they’re not going to listen when everybody is saying we’re good. It’s pretty much as simple as that.”

One minute and one second was all West Virginia needed to establish a lead over the TCU Horned Frogs on Saturday afternoon. After forming a quick lead, the Mountaineers never relinquished it.

Mountaineer kicker Mike Molina booted the opening kickoff to TCU’s Deante Gray. The returner received the ball at his own 8-yard line and returned it nine yards. At the 17, West Virginia’s Marin Gross delivered a hit and forced a fumble.

The Mountaineers recovered. Three plays and 17 yards later, Mountaineer quarterback Skyler Howard found wide receiver Daikiel Shorts for a 10-yard touchdown pass.

Entering this year, there were concerns about how well this West Virginia defense can perform. It endured a lot of departures and season-ending or long-term injuries. For the second straight week, Tony Gibson’s group shut down another high-powered Big 12 offense.

Going into the contest, TCU quarterback Kenny Hill was fourth in the nation in passing yards per game–357. The West Virginia defense was able to contain the signal caller as a runner and a passer. The Mountaineers held Hill only to 147 yards through the air and four yards on the ground.

After claiming the early lead, West Virginia defensive back Rasul Douglas picked off Hill and returned the ball 37 yards. Although the Mountaineer offense couldn’t capitalize on the turnover, the defense then forced a three-and-out on TCU’s following possession. Steadily, the WVU offense started to gain momentum.

Howard dropped back and launched a downfield pass which hit Shorts in the hands–while in double coverage–for a gain of 36 yards.

On the next play, Howard baited TCU’s safeties and found receiver Shelton Gibson for a 22-yard touchdown throw.

Despite the Mountaineers clicking as a whole, the Horned Frogs were able to get back into the game as they scored 10 straight points, but that was a blip, not an indicator. After that, West Virginia tightened things up and re-established its ownership of the flow of play. WVU made sure TCU couldn’t do anything on either side of the ball.

Seven series: That’s how many possessions the Horned Frogs had after scoring  10 consecutive points — they all became wasted drives. The Mountaineers either forced a turnover on downs or a punt on all seven of those TCU series. While the WVU defense flexed its muscles, the offense did as well.

A week after shredding Texas Tech’s secondary, Howard picked apart TCU’s back four. The senior quarterback completed 69.6 percent of his passes for 231 yards and four touchdowns. While Howard was effective through the air for the Mountaineers, running back Rushel Shell was proficient. He added 117 yards on 24 carries–an average of 4.9 yards per attempt–on the ground.

The complete performance by West Virginia allowed it to cake walk over TCU. The final score: 34-10, and the score might have been closer than the game actually was.

The conversation around the water cooler was that the Mountaineers’ 2016 season would truly start against the Horned Frogs, part of a backloaded schedule. With the way West Virginia performed offensively and defensively against TCU, the talks of whether or not the Mountaineers are legitimate should subside, because they showed they are a force to be reckoned with.

West Virginia easily could have been overwhelmed with the love it was receiving after defeating Texas Tech last week. Aside from those two easy scoring drives by the Horned Frogs, the Mountaineers showed impressive maturity.

Maybe this West Virginia team is destined to be like the 2012 squad and lose next week the Oklahoma State Cowboys, but if the Mountaineers are able to the overcome the Cowboys, their next two hardest games–Oklahoma and Baylor–are at home.

In a year when Eastern Michigan is one win away from being bowl eligible, anything can happen. Open your mind on West Virginia, because it is proving itself — each week — to be a legitimate playoff contender.

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