Strange things happen on Thursday nights in the college football season.
Certainly West Virginia, sputtering since the beginning of Big 12 Conference play, going into TCU and starting No. 5 TCU’s Halloween weekend with an early fright qualifies as strange. But don’t be surprised to see Dana Holgorsen’s Mountaineers give the Horned Frogs a fight at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
Every season since both TCU and West Virginia joined the Big 12, 2012, the two have provided some of the conference’s best drama whenever they meet. TCU took the 2012 installments by scores of 39-38 and 31-30, and West Virginia won in 2013, 30-27. Two of those three went to overtime.
Holgorsen summed it up simply in his weekly press conference: “It’s always a fun game with TCU.”
Tonight has the potential to be more of the same despite TCU’s unblemished record, contrasted with West Virginia’s three losses.
Ingredients for a classic trap game are present. TCU eased into the Big 12 slate against teams in the conference’s lower-half: Texas Tech, Kansas State and Iowa State. November brings a gauntlet that will test TCU’s College Football Playoff worthiness, starting next with undefeated Oklahoma State.
The possibility of TCU looking ahead to its Nov. 7 date in Stillwater gives West Virginia an opportunity to ambush the Horned Frogs.
Tonight’s matchup could also develop into a wild shootout.
Both teams have fallen victim to key injuries, particularly on defense. The Mountaineers haven’t been the same on that side of the ball since losing safety Karl Joseph, which leaves a huge hole in the secondary against a top-flight passing attack.
TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin, whom Holgorsen quipped he is “tired of seeing,” ranks fifth in the nation at 362.7 passing yards per game. With a deep wide-receiving corps, led by breakout star Josh Doctson, the Horned Frogs pose match-up nightmares for the depleted West Virginia secondary.
But TCU’s own injury issues on defense have left the Horned Frogs vulnerable since the beginning of Big 12 play. TCU surrendered 52 points to Texas Tech and 45 against Kansas State, only surviving those games because of the offense’s prowess.
Even Iowa State, which just this week severed ties with offensive coordinator Mark Mangino, deluged TCU for 21 points in one quarter on Oct. 17.
The TCU defense is susceptible to offensive outbursts, which might be just the prescription an up-and-down West Virginia offense needs.
Holgorsen-coached teams are known for their offensive firepower, and this year’s squad features a unique look with two capable ball-carriers, Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood, and dual-threat quarterback Skyler Howard.
But Howard’s been inconsistent, and Smallwood’s battled injury since West Virginia entered Big 12 play. The result is a three-game stretch of the Mountaineers’ lowest point totals of the season, all in conference competition.
TCU has had some time to acclimate without linebacker Sammy Douglas, defensive end James McFarland, cornerback Ranthony Texada and safety Kenny Iloka, but the Horned Frogs defense remains patchwork.
West Virginia must take advantage to keep pace with the high-scoring Frogs. A repeat of the Mountaineers’ loss Oct. 17 at Baylor, wherein the Bears hit them with a 21-7 third-quarter barrage, cannot happen for West Virginia to have any chance.
All West Virginia needs is the chance to win. If past pairings opposite TCU are any indication, the Mountaineers should get that opportunity.