Air of mystery surrounds WVU, Iowa St.
AMES, Iowa - In so many ways, West Virginia's game here with Iowa State today is one of mystery. Much of what both teams have done this season might have to be thrown out the window.
Consider that the Mountaineers, who at one time this season had what appeared to be one of the most potent passing attacks in NCAA history, have suddenly become a threat to run the football.
Take into account, too, that Iowa State, long considered the most mundane offensive team in the Big 12, now has a surprise new quarterback who just threw for as many touchdowns (four) as incompletions in a 51-point outburst.
Throw in frigid temperatures that neither team has encountered this season, a short work week and the increasing desperation of WVU where its bowl hopes are concerned, and perhaps all bets are off when the teams meet this afternoon at Jack Trice Stadium.
Kickoff between West Virginia (5-5, 2-5 Big 12) and Iowa State (6-5, 3-5) is at 3:30 p.m. The game will be televised by ABC.
The possibilities seem almost infinite for two teams that only at the end of the season might be finding their identities. Take the Mountaineers, for example. They aren't going to suddenly abandon a still-potent passing attack, but might last week's eye-popping 344-yard rushing performance by Tavon Austin lead to more emphasis on the ground game?
Well, perhaps. But it's not a given.
"We can probably do some more things with him, but if Tavon was an every-down running back and could carry the ball 40 times a game, he would have been doing that for the last four games,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "He's a guy that you look for matchups and you put him in a position to exploit those matchups. That's not necessarily always going to be the case with him in the backfield.''
It might not be the case today. Oklahoma invited WVU to run the football by playing a five-man box and dropping everyone else into coverage. It was tailor-made for Austin getting the ball in the backfield. Iowa State will play a more traditional 4-3 front with one of the best linebackers in the country in 6-foot-2, 248-pound senior A.J. Klein.
That scheme might lend itself to West Virginia playing Austin at slot receiver more in order to pull a defender out. If that's the case, then it would be up to Shawne Alston or Andrew Buie to make things happen in the run game.
But as much as West Virginia's offense is in flux, Iowa State's might be even more of an unknown. All season long - and during the four-year tenure of coach Paul Rhoads - the Cyclones have been as basic as basic gets with the football.
That really didn't change last week when ISU beat Kansas 51-23, but within that basic offense Rhoads found someone who ran it better than anyone else has. Redshirt freshman Sam Richardson replaced starter Steele Jantz on the third series of the game and completed 23 of 27 passes for 250 yards and four touchdowns.
"We actually simplified the offense, but not for him,'' Rhoads said. "We had decided to simplify things no matter who was in there. It just turned out that when we put him in, it was just right for him to run.''
Rhoads wouldn't even commit this week to starting Richardson and there seems the very good possibility that Jantz, a senior, could get the nod on ISU's senior day. But Richardson will certainly play and the offense won't change.
"They're not overly complicated with what they do offensively. They're going to spread you out, they're going to run the zone, they're going to zone read - which they did with [Richardson] - and they're going to get the ball out of their hands,'' Holgorsen said. "They're excellent at not getting caught with the ball in the backfield and all three quarterbacks do the same thing. From a scheme standpoint, it's not really going to make a difference to us who they play at quarterback.''
No, but what will make a difference is whether West Virginia's defense can stop what the Cyclones run. That's not been the case in almost any game this season, with opponents doing whatever they want and generally doing it better against the Mountaineers than anyone else.
Holgorsen, though, insists his defense is improving, but chances are good that it will have to be proven today if the Mountaineers are going to finally win the sixth game needed for bowl eligibility.
"It comes down to the same thing it always does, making stops,'' Holgorsen said. "We've gotten better at doing that. We're making more. But until we do it consistently we're still going to have problems.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1