West Virginia and Texas are two teams that historically have late-season contests with bowl aspirations. Seldom, however, do those aspirations include the simple opportunity to even appear in a bowl.
That is exactly what is on the line in Morgantown on Saturday at noon, as both teams already have six losses with two games to go. The Mountaineers and the Longhorns will duke it out at Milan Puskar Stadium on ESPN2, and the loser will most likely be left without a bowl game in December.
Texas lands in the Mountain State amid a historic cold spell for the program. The first season of Steve Sarkisian has been marred by a five-game losing streak, capped off by a debilitating overtime loss at home to Kansas.
One has to go deep into the annals of Longhorn football to find a skid that long — all the way back to 1956. That season, Texas had a streak that lasted just as many games, and it all started with a loss to West Virginia.
In 2021, the Mountaineers are hungry to get their first win over Texas since 2018, and the first of the Neal Brown era. They’ve also had some painful losses in recent weeks, most recently at Kansas State on the road.
“It’s not too late to play good football,” Brown said. “We’ve played good football in spots this year, but we haven’t been consistent, which I promise you that doesn’t piss anyone off more than me.”
West Virginia has added motivation as they prepare for the season’s home finale. Before the game, WVU will honor its senior class as part of a Senior Day ceremony on the field.
Here are some of the biggest storylines heading into Saturday’s matchup:
WVU’s depth is a concern
Neal Brown’s offense will have an extra weapon as backup quarterback Garrett Greene returns to the offense. The redshirt freshman didn’t make the trip to Kansas State after suffering an upper body injury against Oklahoma State, and could provide a spark with his legs as he’s helped spell starter Jarret Doege with a unique twist to the offense.
Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, though, that’s where the positive injury news seems to end. On Tuesday, Brown declared wide receiver Sean Ryan questionable, and said that he was “cautiously optimistic” that Ryan would make an appearance against Texas. That could hurt the talented wide receiver room, which could also be working without Isaiah Esdale, who missed the K-State clash.
Esdale’s absence did provide an opportunity for freshman Kaden Prather, who impressed in a breakout performance against the Wildcats with four catches for 60 yards.
The true depth concerns sit on the defensive side of the ball. Linebacker Exree Loe is officially out for the season after undergoing surgery for a lower body injury. He was a key contributor to the defense with 10 appearances. WVU hopes to get Lance Dixon back in the linebacking corps after he missed the K-State game.
Additionally, the Mountaineers are hurt in the secondary, as Aubrey Burks missed Kansas State, weakening an already-depleted safety position.
“We have some depth concerns at safety and linebacker, but we’re going to lineup and play,” Brown said. “Josh Chandler[-Semedo] will play, Deshawn Stevens will play more, Scottie Young will play, he finished the game playing linebacker, and Scottie Young played really well [against Kansas State].”
The “talented” Longhorns have struggled
Not many people in Austin are happy with the Longhorns’ 2021 campaign, the least of all is Steve Sarkisian. Not only do they have one of the bottom defenses in the Big 12, but they also lost their biggest offensive weapon in running back Bijan Robinson for the remainder of the season.
Robinson was Texas’s leading rusher and second-leading receiver before he went down, muscling the Longhorns to become the second-best rushing attack in the league.
On defense, though, the story is much different. Texas is one of three teams in the Big 12 to allow more than 200 rushing yards per game, while they sit closer to the middle of the pack in terms of pass defense.
“It’s been frustrating for everybody,” Sarkisian said. “We’re still in the phase of we’re trying to keep getting things taught, and we try to practice the look that we think we’re going to get.”
This was especially present against Kansas, as Texas allowed 202 yards to the Jayhawks — the second-worst rushing attack in the Big 12.
Texas at WVU football game information
WVU’s home finale kicks off at noon ET on ESPN2. Like always, though, Saturday starts on your local Nexstar station with an all-new episode of The Neal Brown Show. That is followed by a live hour of Mountaineer GameDay, the most fun pregame show in the Mountain State, starting at 10 a.m. ET. Mountaineer GameDay concludes with a second full live hour on AT&T SportsNet at 11 a.m. ET.