By Krista Pirtle
There’s history in unchartered territory as Baylor travels to West Virginia for its Big 12 conference opener at 11:06 a.m. Saturday.
Baylor head coach Art Briles and West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen worked together at Texas Tech from 2000-2002.
A shared experience has brought about a similar coaching mentality, as Saturday morning’s game is sure to showcase footballs flying through the air.
The ground game, statistically, leans in Baylor’s favor, as the Mountaineers only ran the ball for 25 yards against Maryland last weekend.
“I think we’ve been okay,” Briles said. “We’ve been averaging over 200 yards a game. There are not many teams in America that are averaging 300 [passing yards] and 200 rushing a game. We are certainly not where we think we will be, we feel like we have some energy out there that hasn’t produced yet.”
That energy will be needed as the Bears head into a packed Milan Puskar Stadium.
The Mountaineers will open up play in the Big 12 conference, as well as celebrate homecoming; not to mention, West Virginia is 47-8 at home during the past eight years.
“We get to open those guys up to the Big 12,” junior nickelback Ahmad Dixon said. “We get to show them how we perform in the Big 12. It’s their homecoming as well. We know that they’re going to be taking a lot of shots, so we have to stay focused and do what we have to do.”
Whether or not the Baylor defense lines up in a 4-3 or a 3-4 is beside the point as it will focus on stopping a Heisman favorite in senior quarterback Geno Smith.
So far this season, Smith has an 81.4 percent completion record, going 96-118 for 1072 yards with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Another big threat for the Mountaineers is senior wide receiver Tavon Austin, No. 9 in the nation for all-purpose yards. He is also responsible for kick and punt returns, possibly because he runs a 4.38 40-yard dash.
Austin isn’t the only offensive threat the Mountaineers have, as a variety of receivers line up on either side of center.
“We know West Virginia has a really explosive offense,” redshirt freshman defensive tackle Trevor Clemons-Valdez said. “We have our work cut out for us, but we are a great defense. We are a great team ,and we give great effort. I have all the faith in the world that we’re going to go out there and handle business.”
Baylor matches up with the offensive threats with senior quarterback Nick Florence, who has recorded a 64.5 percent completion percentage, recording 71-110 for 1004 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Florence is a yard, touchdown and interception behind preseason Heisman favorite USC senior quarterback Matt Barkley.
Two of Florence’s interceptions happened in the Bears’ last matchup against the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
“It was awful,” Florence said. “But you learn from it and to be able to bounce back was a good thing for me to clear it. We talk about it all the time is clearing the last play. We can’t make those mistakes. Turnovers can kill a game, and we were down 14-0 early because of turnovers. We can’t do that this week. We’ve got to protect the football and execute well.”
Florence leads the nation in total offense with 387.67 yards per game while Smith is No. 2 with 379.67 yards per game.
As for the top target for Florence, senior wide receiver Terrance Williams leads the conference and is No. 6 in the nation with 117.7 yards per game.
Williams is surrounded by 1,000 yard receivers in senior Lanear Sampson and junior Tevin Reese.
Sophomore Levi Norwood is also a threat that is often overlooked.
“One thing that shocks me is that he [Norwood] is not the biggest guy, but he might be one of the toughest guys to bring down on the field,” Florence said. “He plays with a lot of confidence and a lot of poise. He just understands the game and the holes.”
While the game is being predicted as a shootout, both teams’ defenses have different ideas.
“We want to go out and show that we can make plays too,” West Virginia senior linebacker Terence Garvin said. “Of course as a defense you never want to go out and expect to give up some points. You want to come out and say that we are going to make plays.”
West Virginia’s redshirt freshman Isaiah Bruce is No. 2 in the Big 12 with 30 tackles so far this year.
Baylor’s sophomore Bryce Hager is No. 1 in the conference with 13 tackles per game.
“They look pretty good on film,” junior wide receiver Steadman Bailey said. “They look pretty solid on defense. They have some good defensive backs, and their guys up front do a good job of creating pressure on the quarterback. They’ve given up quite a bit of points the past few games, but that’s no reason for us to take them lightly.”
While the matchup looks even statistically, turnovers will play a big role in this game.
“Coach [Phil] Bennett teaches perfection, he preaches perfection and that is what we are striving for,” Valdez said.
Ultimately, however, the result of the football game will all boil down to how it handles playing in one of the best stadiums in college football.
“They are going to have a good stadium,” Briles said. “It’s not like it’s going to be a big first-time deal for them. They have been doing things right up there for a long time. The only significance is that it’s their first Big 12 game.”