MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Mountaineer fourth-year head coach Neal Brown spoke Monday about the situational changes his offense will work through Thursday night versus Baylor due to the absence of freshman running back CJ Donaldson.
Most notably, West Virginia will look for a different option in the backfield on third down, where Donaldson has shined both as a runner and a pass catcher this year.
Beyond third down is fourth down. The latter can present a new set of challenges for the Mountaineers on both sides of the ball, given this week’s opponent.
“You can look at it a couple of ways. You’re playing two first downs, or two second downs, however you want to look at whatever third down is,” said WVU defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley. “It just depends on how you look at it, whether you change your play call or not. You just got to be aware that that’s their philosophy.”
Dave Aranda and the Baylor Bears have rolled the dice on fourth down the second-most times in the Big 12 this season. Of Baylor’s 16 fourth down attempts, ten have resulted in a first down.
The Bears’ offense has a conversion rate of 62.5 percent, which is the fifth-best in the league.
When facing a team that goes for it and converts on fourth down as often as Baylor, it changes, and can even limit, the game-planning abilities of opposing defensive coordinators.
“You just don’t know until you get to the game with how you’ll play that,” said Lesley. “You can get some things in your head with what you want to call, based on field position, based on personnel, but until you know exactly what the down and distance is – could be a hash [mark] thing – you don’t know.”
Brown had similar thoughts as Lesley, stating that a second-and-long for Baylor’s offense can feel like first down all over again for the defense. That’s how West Virginia will approach things, especially once the Bears get near or beyond midfield.
The head coach referenced the 40-yard line as a point on the gridiron where the Bears’ chances of going for it increase.
Lesley, meanwhile, is not waiting for Baylor to get near midfield to begin prepping for a fourth-down try.
“The way I see it is, every series you know in the back of your head there’s a possibility you play four downs, and if you got to play it – if you got to adjust to something that you’re doing specifically for that, which they really don’t do – you just got to be ready to play that extra down,” said the WVU defensive coordinator.
West Virginia’s defense has allowed the second-highest opponent conversion rate on fourth down this season among Big 12 programs. Opposing offenses have moved the chains on four of seven tries on fourth down.
However, FCS foe Towson pulled off three of the four successful attempts in the second half of that Week 3 contest well after the majority of West Virginia’s defensive starters had been pulled from the game.
That means FBS teams are just 1-for-4 on fourth down against WVU’s starters. Virginia Tech found that out the hard way, as the Mountaineers twice forced the Hokies to turn the ball over on downs.
On the other side of the ball, West Virginia’s offense has been successful on 80 percent of its fourth down conversion attempts, most recently a 21-yard pass to Sam James, which later led to a Kaden Prather touchdown against Texas.
The Mountaineers have one fewer attempt on fourth down but have been successful two additional times than the Bears. Baylor and West Virginia average 3.2 and 3.0 attempts on fourth down per game, respectively.
West Virginia’s 12 fruitful fourth down tries are the fifth-most among all FBS teams.