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The Chalkboard: West Virginia prepares for key matchup with Baylor

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Is the Baylor game a must-win game for West Virginia? It certainly feels like it. While some fans have already thrown in the towel on the season, WVU can still have a year that could be judged as successful, but it has to get some wins over teams that it was packed together with in the preseason, the teams with which it will be competing for potential postseason play.

The Mountaineers already put themselves behind the 8-ball by gifting Maryland with a win in the season opener and buried themselves near the bottom of the Big 12 standings with the Texas Tech loss.

The question is, does that matter to the team at this point? That’s not an overreaction, but an honest question sparked by the listless effort shown in the first half of the Texas Tech game. If beating a team that has dominated you the past two years doesn’t spark a reaction, what will? Or is this just the way the majority of players are today?

One other thought — this team has not been a big rah-rah type in any of its pregame warm-ups thus far. Observing from the field, the demeanor has been more business-like. That’s not necessarily a negative — some very successful squads aren’t jumping around and hollering all the time — but it is difficult to get a read on just how emotionally invested the team is each week.

As the Mountaineers have been either tied or held a lead in the fourth quarter of every game they have played this year, ‘finishing’ has become a topic du jour.

In many ways, that’s a nebulous concept. What goes into finishing other than continuing to play well, or not considering the job already done? More importantly, how is that practiced or achieved?

Head coach Neal Brown noted that some changeups to practice were in the works to emphasize that concept. Included will be pushes to finish individual drills strongly and to provide attention to detail through the last rep.

“We are going to search as a staff,” offensive coordinator Gerad Parker added. “When you give it more attention, sometimes it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Continuing to push our guys to be a fourth-quarter team is a mentality, and then structurally, changing some things in practice to send a message that ‘Hey, this is the fourth quarter. Let’s finish the game.'”

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Baylor has gotten a level of play from quarterback Gerry Bohanon that was unexpected — at least outside the program. Prior to last week's Oklahoma State game, his QB efficiency rating was through the roof, owing mostly to his seven touchdown to zero interception ratio. Those efficiency ratings often overemphasize touchdown passes (does it really matter how a team scores?), but zero picks is a big deal.

Bohanon then ran into the Cowboys, who are going to make a lot of passers look pedestrian this year. While he still avoided a pick, he completed just 13 of 27 attempts (48%) and was sacked three times. Can West Virginia’s defensive front generate the kind of pressure that the Pokes did and force similar numbers?

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West Virginia’s coaches have noted the need to get a few more players into games over the past couple weeks, either for reasons of development (offensive line, linebacker) or to prevent wearing down of stalwarts (running back).

However, that hasn’t been evident to a great extent. WVU’s back runners have made only token appearances with next to no touches, and the line moves of the past weekend were partially due to injury (Wyatt Milum). That leaves a couple of items to watch and think about at those positions. Are there backups close enough in ability to play without causing a significant drop-off? Will we see different players (Jordan White) get more snaps on the line? Does the speed of linebackers Lance Dixon and Deshawn Stevens equate to a few more plays at linebacker?

Road games, with their more limited player availability, are often more helpful in answering questions like this, so a watch of who makes the trip to Waco is an indicator as to which of that group (or others) are in the plans for playing time.

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COVID AND COLLATERAL NOTES: Each week, we’ll provide notes and tips on health precautions, travel advisories and more for the upcoming game in this space.

Like WVU, Baylor is requiring facemasks in its on-campus buildings, but that does not include McLane Stadium. BU is also requiring bi-weekly testing for all of its students, faculty and staff through Oct 15. That does not extend to those attending athletic contests.

Minus the Long Island game, WVU is averaging 21 points per contest. Baylor, minus the Texas Southern blowout, is putting up almost 29 per outing. Much of that can be attributed to the Bears’ 9-4 turnover margin advantage, which includes zero interceptions thrown to date.

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Neither team is afraid to go for it on fourth down, so conversions there and the resulting extensions of drives could be an important factor in the game. Baylor is 9-12 this year, which ranks 16th in success rate (75%) and seventh in total conversions.

WVU is right behind with eight successful tries in 11 attempts, ranking 10th in conversions and 22nd in success rate.

Baylor and West Virginia might use more motion, misdirection and multiple formations than any other teams in the Big 12. Part to emphasize strengths and hide deficiencies, and part to hone execution of a few plays over the random utilization of many, the Bears are leading the Big 12 in yards per play, yards per rush and fewest sacks, while standing second in total offense and rushing offense.

Those tactics are only part of the reason for BU’s offensive showing. Two offensive line transfers (Jacob Gall and Grant Miller), with a season’s worth of starts at their former schools, have been vital links on a line that piled up 964 rushing yards in its first three games of the year. The rushing numbers did drop to 123 and 107 against Iowa State and Oklahoma State, so there is still some question as to just where the Bear offense ranks in terms of overall strength in the league. This week should give an even better indication of that.

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The Bears begin an October homestand against WVU, playing three games in McLane Stadium over the next four weeks, including the Big 12's last non-conference game of the year against BYU next Saturday. With wins the next two weeks, the Bears would be bowl-eligible — a plateau that few forecast for them this season.