The West Virginia Mountaineers returned to Milan Puskar Stadium loaded and ready for their Big 12 opener against Baylor.
The only problem was that they were playing Maryland.
Word was that practice the week before the game was ragged, and indeed the performance of the same reflected that approach. Thus a game that looked on paper like an easy afternoon turned into a struggle.
One of the charms or frustrations of following a college football team, depending on your point of view on any given Saturday, is that it is played by young kids whose performances can vary considerably from week to week. If you are a team that is not focused and ready to play, the opposition may not be very good but cannot be counted on to roll over and play poorly just to be accommodating. Your opponents are football players too who practice hard all week and want to win just as badly.
Most fans observed that quarterback Geno Smith was not having a very good outing, and even Geno agreed. But the final stat line showed he was 30 of 43 for 338 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. Perhaps we West Virginia fans are becoming a bit spoiled. We should all be so lucky as to have our bad days look like that.
The Mountaineers struggled to run the football, in part due to the absence of Shawne Alston who sat out with an injury. But one player who did shine was Tavon Austin, a Baltimore native who seems to revel in torching his home state university. Austin caught 13 passes for 179 yards and scored all three offensive touchdowns in a remarkable performance. He also set a WVU record for career receptions.
The West Virginia defense played aggressively all afternoon, and the feast or famine result may be typical of what WVU fans can expect throughout the season. On the plus side was that the defense did create three turnovers and a defensive score (its second in three games), but still allowed a true freshman quarterback playing in just his third game to throw for more than 300 yards. The tackling in the secondary was spotty. There is a stat known as "yards after catch" which measures how many yards pass receivers gain after they catch the ball until being tackled. I don't know what that total was for the WVU defense Saturday, but it had to be a huge number.
We can live with giving up some big plays if the defense also creates turnovers, controls the run and gets some sacks as it did against Maryland. But if we see the chasing of receivers without the positive plays there could be some long afternoons.
This Saturday: The Big 12 Conference season opens as Baylor travels to Morgantown. The Bears have been similar to West Virginia with an outstanding offense, a questionable defense, and a 3-0 record against less than top-notch competition. Fortunately Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III is gone but Baylor quarterback Nick Florence has a good arm and excellent pass receivers. He also is very mobile, an attribute which usually causes problems for WVU defenses.
The Mountaineers will need to play much better than they did on Saturday, but I expect them to be focused and do just that in what should be a fun atmosphere and an entertaining shootout. West Virginia 40, Baylor 35.