Lesson learned from last year
MORGANTOWN - A rather familiar but almost forgotten subject came up several times Tuesday as Dana Holgorsen was answering questions at his weekly press conference.
For instance, the West Virginia coach was talking about the Texas secondary his team will face Saturday night when the No. 8 Mountaineers and No. 11 Longhorns match 4-0 records in Austin.
"The corners are good. They're fast and they can get in your face,'' Holgorsen said. "And [free safety Kenny] Vaccaro is really a third corner. What they do with him is what LSU did with that kid last year. They put him down in the slot where he can be disruptive.''
A few seconds later, Holgorsen raised the coverage issue again.
"It's going to be challenging to our receivers because they're going to have people in their grill for the first time all year,'' he said. "It's much what LSU did last year.''
Sensing a pattern here? Indeed, there are more than a few parallels between West Virginia's fifth game this season and the fourth a year ago.
No, the Longhorns are not quite as highly regarded as was LSU last season. The Tigers were, after all, ranked No. 2 in the country, soon to be No. 1 and playing in the national title game.
And that game was in Morgantown, not at a 100,000-seat hostile stadium.
But other similarities are striking, including the fact that the attention given both on a national level is rather astounding.
In Texas, once again West Virginia will be facing perhaps the most talented, physical and athletic defense it will see all season, five-star recruits being the rule rather than the exception.
The Longhorns make their hay offensively by running the football, just as LSU did. Texas, though, has a far better passing game.
And for the most part West Virginia handled all of that exceedingly well, making that LSU defense look almost pedestrian by gaining 533 yards. Consider that the Tigers began the season by giving up 335 yards to Oregon and ended it by surrendering 384 to Alabama. In between, no one else managed even 300 yards.
On the flip side, LSU's offense was held to fewer than the 366 yards it gained against WVU in only four of 12 regular season games. The Tigers did run for 186 yards, but only three teams held them to significantly less than that in 14 games.
So, all things considered, if West Virginia can just duplicate that performance against Texas, the Mountaineers should be fine come Saturday night. Well, fine except for the one variable that rendered meaningless all of those glowing statistics compiled against LSU.
And that's the one thing Holgorsen will be preaching to his players this week when he compares the two games.
"Four turnovers,'' Holgorsen said. "That's what we learned in that one.''
Indeed, that is the one thing that can kill any team and it might be the only thing that can derail this one, given the insane numbers put up by the offense. West Virginia has turned the ball over just once in four games this season, that by the reserves after the outcome of a game against Marshall had been long decided.
But consider this: In its last 39 games, West Virginia has turned the ball over as many as four times just thrice. And all were ugly - four times in a 16-13 overtime loss to Connecticut in 2010 that ultimately cost the Mountaineers a BCS bowl berth, five times in a horrid 23-7 loss to North Carolina State in the 2010 Champs Sports Bowl, and four times in that 47-21 loss to LSU.
There's not much that is Kryptonite to West Virginia's Superman offense, but turnovers are huge.
"We're capable of running routes and pass protecting and all that. We proved we can do that against anybody,'' Holgorsen said, referring to that LSU game again. "You have to block up front and you have to win one-on-one matchups on the outside. We did all that. But we turned the ball over four times.
"Did we lose? You're darn right we did. We didn't stop their run and we turned it over four times. Hopefully, it is not the same outcome.''
An emphasis on winning the turnover battle in big games - or any games, for that matter - is, of course, nothing novel. Texas boasts on the first page of its weekly media release that the Longhorns have won 58 straight dating back to 2002 when winning the turnover count. West Virginia touts a similar statistic on the first page of its release: a 66-4 record since 2002 when coming out on top in turnovers.
"That's the one stat that exists in college football that is very apparent,'' Holgorsen said.
It was obviously apparent in West Virginia's biggest regular season game last year and it is likely to be just as important Saturday when the Mountaineers face another in what figures to be a string of high-profile games this fall.
"We're not playing LSU, but I understand the [similarities],'' Holgorsen said. "But the two things we've got to do better is stop the run and not turn the ball over.''
"We'll see how he does today,'' Holgorsen said.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.