Texas vs. West Virginia: 5 things to watch in Week 5

AUSTIN — Coach Steve Sarkisian is 7-9 through his first 16 games at Texas. That’s the same mark as Charlie Strong, who was ousted in 2016 after three seasons, and two wins off the pace set by previous coach Tom Herman, fired on Jan. 2, 2021, after going 32-18 overall and 4-0 in bowl games.

No one is happy with Sarkisian’s sub-.500 record. Not the coach himself, not athletic director Chris Del Conte, not star running back Bijan Robinson.

But, Sarkisian said Thursday, Texas is “still a pretty good team.”

“I think the noise around our team is that the sky is falling and ‘what happened to Texas’ and we’re not very good,” Sarkisian continued. “But we could all be sitting here 4-0 and acting like it’s sunshine and rosy out and we’d still be wanting to work on things to get better.”

True, no team is a finished product this team of year. And had Texas (2-2, 0-1 Big 12) executed just a little bit better down the stretch in one-score losses to Alabama and Texas Tech, the Longhorns would be undefeated and harboring hopes of reaching the Big 12 championship game and College Football Playoff.

But the reality is, Texas needs to beat West Virginia (2-2, 0-1) Saturday night at Royal-Memorial Stadium to even be considered a player in the Big 12 title race. And with the Mountaineers coming off a dominant 33-10 road win over Virginia Tech, the Longhorns have to play their best game of the season to avoid an 0-2 start in league play.

Here’s what to watch for when Texas and WVU face off Saturday night:

1. Can Texas’ defense get off the field?

Texas Tech kept Texas’ defense on the field for 100 plays last week. The Red Raiders possessed the ball for nearly 36 full minutes, 11 in the fourth quarter alone.

That was largely because Texas Tech converted on fourth down six times in eight tries, establishing a new Big 12 single-game record while wearing down Texas’ defense.

Texas has also allowed opponents convert 39.7 percent of the time on third down, 84th in the nation. WVU’s offense has converted on 49.2 percent of its third-down attempts, ranking 21st in the nation.

2. Where are the explosive plays?

Whether it’s been Hudson Card or Quinn Ewers quarterbacking the offense, Texas receivers haven’t hauled in many deep balls this season.

On passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield, Ewers and Card are 9 of 27 for 280 yards with one touchdown and one interception. A few drops have hurt those numbers, as has the recent lower leg injury sustained by star wideout Xavier Worthy.

In last week’s 23-point win over Virginia Tech, West Virginia forced six incompletions on seven throws of 20-plus yards. Sarkisian has yet to name a starting quarterback for this week’s game, but whether it’s Ewers or Card, they’ll have to find ways to beat a defense that doesn’t surrender many explosive passing plays.

When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Royal-Memorial Stadium, Austin
Radio: 790 AM

3. Did the players-only meeting actually accomplish anything?

It’s generally never a positive sign when the players host a meeting amongst themselves following a loss, particularly one like Texas just took out in Lubbock. And if the players are just hitting on all of the coach’s talking points anyway, well, how much of a difference can it really make?

A big one, Sarkisian hopes. On Monday, the team’s leadership committee held a meeting. On Tuesday, that group hosted a players-only meeting.

“The leadership committee addressed some of the things that I talked about where we can improve,” Sarkisian said. “I thought that was a great sign that they were willing to take that initiative and do that.”

4. Can Texas force J.T. Daniels into a costly mistake?

After spending two seasons at USC (2018-19) and two at Georgia (2020-21) former five-star recruit J.T. Daniels is now leading WVU’s offense. But the Mountaineers haven’t asked him to sling it downfield 40 times a game, as he’s thrown for a total of 377 yards and two touchdowns the past two weeks.

Most importantly, he hasn’t turned it over after throwing one interception in each of WVU’s first two games.

Meanwhile, Texas has created just two takeaways this season, both via interception.

“We’ve got to find a way to get it back, whether it’s getting off the field on third and fourth down, or it’s creating turnovers,” Sarkisian said. “That’s the biggest thing that we’ve prepared to do, is to try to get the ball and keep the ball in our possession.”

5. Who will control the ground game?

Junior Bijan Robinson and senior Roschon Johnson lead Texas’ backfield. West Virginia’s is powered by redshirt sophomore Tony Mathis Jr. and converted freshman tight end CJ Donaldson.

Robinson and Johnson have combined to rush for 560 yards and eight touchdowns on 97 carries. Donaldson and Mathis have been even more productive, gaining 652 yards on 110 attempts with eight scores.

For Texas, establishing the run early and limiting touches for Mathis and Donaldson will be key to winning.  

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