West Virginia has underachieved most of the season, but that won’t stop the Mountaineers fans from packing Milan Puskar Stadium.
A long trip for Big 12 teams gets even rougher once they step inside the stadium deep in the mountains of West Virginia. Mountaineer fans are passionate, loud and very supportive of their team.
Baylor has never walked away smiling.
The Bears have lost all five games in Morgantown since West Virginia joined the Big 12 in 2012 heading into Thursday night’s 6 p.m. matchup.
Baylor had a strong shot to break the streak during Dave Aranda’s debut season in 2020 as the Bears took the game into double overtime before dropping a 27-21 decision.
“We know how loud it’s going to be,” said Baylor center Jacob Gall. “We practice for that kind of stuff. Thursday night, there’s going to be a little different stimulus that way, too, just schedule-wise. But I think the guys are refreshed from the bye week.”
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Following a 36-25 loss to Oklahoma State on Oct. 1 at McLane Stadium, Baylor’s bye week seemed to have come at an opportune time.
Aranda wants to see more maturity and leadership from the Bears (3-2, 1-1) that can pay off in crucial moments. Fighting inconsistency all season, West Virginia (2-3, 0-2) is trying to rebound from a 38-20 road loss at Texas.
“I think when you go in off a loss, you really have to kind of sit in it,” Aranda said. “I think it really makes you see kind of the parts and the places and the things that you would otherwise choose not to see. So I think that’s all good. I think using it for the good is the other big issue.”
Baylor’s defense has been solid all season, but West Virginia’s offense will be a challenge with fifth-year junior quarterback JT Daniels leading the way. After two-year stints at both USC and Georgia, Daniels has completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 1,209 yards and eight touchdowns for the Mountaineers.
Creating an adequate pass rush and forcing Daniels into mistakes will be vital for Baylor’s defense.
“He’s a patient quarterback, so he’s able to see the offense and get the ball to his key players,” said Baylor outside linebacker Bryson Jackson. “I think he’s really good at that and sitting in the pocket and making great decisions. So I’m pretty excited to go up against him and get ready for that battle. I feel like he’s an intelligent player and just as far as his passing, and we’re going to get after him.”
Daniels has a top go-to target in Bryce Ford-Wheaton, who ranks second in the Big 12 with 35 catches for 412 yards and four touchdowns. Sam James is another productive receiver with good speed who has made 20 catches for 305 yards and two touchdowns.
West Virginia’s running game is led by CJ Donaldson, who has rushed for 389 yards and six touchdowns while averaging an eye-popping 6.9 yards per carry while Tony Mathis has rushed for 296 yards and three scores.
While West Virginia’s offense ranks fifth in the Big 12 with 38.2 points per game, the Mountaineers defense ranks ninth by allowing 29.6 points.
The Bears hope to exploit it with their offensive balance. Blake Shapen has completed 69.3 percent for 1,118 yards and nine touchdowns while Monaray Baldwin is becoming a big-play receiver with 12 catches for 261 yards and three scores.
“I think he (Baldwin) jumps off the screen,” Aranda said. “People have to game plan for him. And so there’s mismatches that you’ll try to find by formation, and by down and distance and things, where you try to be able to get that speed on maybe something that’s not as fast.”
Baylor’s biggest challenge against West Virginia’s defense will be running the ball. Freshman Richard Reese has carried the Bears on the ground as he’s rushed for 400 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
But with Jordan Jefferson recording four tackles for loss and Dante Stills adding three, the Mountaineers are powerful up front as they’ve allowed just 100.6 yards rushing per game and 3.2 yards per carry.
“They have really active defensive linemen,” Aranda said. “They’re physical, they move them around. I think they are multiple, and so they’ll get in different fronts with their linebackers, similar to Oklahoma State to a degree. I think they play a lot of quarters coverage. So their safeties are involved in the run as well.”
The Bears have gone 1-1 in road games, dropping a 26-20 double-overtime decision at BYU on Sept. 10 before pulling off a 31-24 win over Iowa State in the Big 12 opener on Sept. 24.
Though the Bears have a lot of tough road games remaining at Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Texas, they know they can’t overlook a West Virginia team that’s hungry for its first Big 12 win.
“They play hard, they’re a good team,” Gall said. “I think we can see over the past couple weeks, there are no bad teams in this league, everybody’s good. I think top to bottom, this is the best league in the country. They play well at home and I think we’ve got to be ready for that.”