If the Backyard Brawl was the most anticipated game of the WVU football season, Thursday’s matchup at Houston was probably a close No. 2.
The Mountaineers (4-1, 2-0 Big 12) will face off against Dana Holgorsen and Houston (2-3, 0-2 Big 12) for the first time since Holgorsen resigned from his head coaching position in Morgantown.
Healthy in some areas, injuries in others
WVU’s quarterback and running back positions are the healthiest they’ve been since the Pitt game, but there is a real chance the WVU offensive line will be without its starting left side Thursday night. Left guard Tomas Rimac will not play because of a leg injury he sustained in the TCU game, and left tackle Wyatt Milum will be a game-time decision.
Ja’Quay Hubbard will make his first start of the year in Rimac’s absence, but Hubbard has plenty of starting experience from his time on the first-team offensive line last season. Should Milum miss Thursday’s game, Morgantown native Nick Malone – who started vs, Duquesne – will likely play left tackle.
“Obviously, [they are] different players, but in terms of schematics, [we are] not changing anything schematically,” offensive coordinator Chad Scott said. “Those guys got to be able to go out there and do it.”
Defending the pass
Only Texas and Oklahoma are throwing for more yards per game in the Big 12 this season than Houston (414 air yards per game). Former WVU wide receiver Sam Brown – the Big 12’s leading receiver by over 100 yards – and former Texas Tech quarterback Donovan Smith form one of the strongest connections in the Big 12 despite a winless conference record.
Houston’s passing unit as a whole is currently the No. 3 air attack in the Big 12 with 281.2 yards per game.
Ever since the WVU defensive back room mixed up the depth chart for the Backyard Brawl, the Mountaineers are allowing just 180 passing yards per game. Opposing teams threw for just 278 passing yards in the second half of WVU’s last three games.
Holgorsen’s passing offense vs. Brown and Jordan Lesley’s defensive backs will be a subplot to monitor Thursday.
Scouting a new conference opponent
Houston and West Virginia have never met on the gridiron. The Cougars are in their first year of their Big 12 membership, but Brown believes there are some glaring similarities to his team and other Big 12 squads.
“There’s some familiarity there from an offensive standpoint just because [we come] from similar trees, and things like that, so there [are] some similarities there,” he said.
On the same note, neither team has much data on the other like they would with traditional conference opponents. They don’t have notes from years past, and there is no film to peruse other than Houston’s from its time in the AAC.
“It’s very similar to a nonconference game because you don’t have that to fall back on,” Brown said.