MORGANTOWN - To say this is a must-win game for the West Virginia Mountaineers is an understatement. If WVU wants any chance at postseason play, it has to find a way to get its first road victory when it travels to Fort Worth, Texas, today to take on the TCU Horned Frogs.
Make no mistake about it. The Mountaineers have an uphill battle the size of Mt. Everest ahead of them.
While TCU has only three victories, all of those have come at Amon G. Carter Stadium. The Horned Frogs also have only six losses in their previous 37 games on home turf.
West Virginia averages about 15 points per game on the road, but if you eliminate the Baylor game, that number drops to 6.3.
As disappointing as those numbers sound, the defense has given up an average of about 40 points on the road and a total of 145 since the Mountaineers earned their last victory in September.
"We are starting over," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "We have four games left so it's a new season. That's what our message was Sunday. We have to keep fighting and keep battling, stay united, keep practicing and keep improving."
Those improvements need to come sooner rather than later.
West Virginia had plenty of opportunities to put Kansas State away early last week, but scored only one touchdown when it was in the red zone. Other attempts inside the Wildcats 20 ended in two field goals and turnover on downs when a fake field goal failed.
"As everybody is well aware, we haven't been playing winning football on offense," Holgorsen said. "We need to continue to improve. The team is excited to continue to improve and prepare for each week. It's going to be a challenge. We have to be able to move the ball. We have to be able to get it into the end zone."
It'll be a tough challenge to move the ball, especially through the air, against a stingy Horned Frogs defense that leads the Big 12 in both sacks (24) and interceptions (15).
"They do a great job of rushing the passer," Holgorsen said. "Their secondary matches routes and covers as well as I've ever seen it. The quarterback has to sit back there with nowhere to throw and the rush gets there. (Defensive end) John Koontz played against us last year and gave us fits. The guys on the inside are good with (defensive tackles) Chucky Hunter and Davion Pierson. Those guys do a tremendous job of holding their gaps in the run game, but also understanding when it's a run, pass or screen and coming up the field. They have capable people doing it and they get to the quarterback well. That pass coverage in the back is something special as well."
Another player that is sure to make an impact on the game is All-American cornerback Jason Verrett.
Since 2012, Verrett leads the nation with 36 passes defended (eight picks, 28 pass breakups) and is a semifinalist for the Jim Thrope Award and a quarterfinalist for the Lott IMPACT Trophy in his senior season.
"They have a lot of returning starters," Holgorsen said of TCU's defense. "All five guys from the secondary last year are returning starters. They have as good of a secondary as there is in college football. I was very impressed with them last year, and this year I'm even more impressed with them."
As good as the Horned Frogs defense has been, their offense has been lackluster.
TCU hasn't scored more than 17 points since a Week 1 loss to LSU and is coming off a 30-7 loss to Texas.
Poor receiver play has hindered TCU as its leading receiver, LaDarius Brown, has only 23 receptions for 216 yards and one score.
Preseason All-Big 12 quarterback Casey Pachall returned to the starting lineup against the Long Horns, but completed only 13 of 34 passes for 139 yards, which has caused coach Gary Patterson to do some adjusting along the offensive line.
The Horned Frogs also have quarterback Trevone Boykin, who has filled in for Pachall each of the last two seasons, at their disposal, but Holgorsen says TCU's game plan doesn't change much when either QB is under center.
"With Kansas State, their offensive approach was a little different based on which quarterback was in," he said. "That's not necessarily the case here with TCU. Whichever quarterback is in there, they typically do the same things, which will make it easier for us to prepare. With that said, it's about making plays. We need to continue to make plays and put our guys into critical situations to make plays. The one thing about last week was that we played well defensively, but on about seven third-downs we played poorly. In those critical situations we have to make plays and make things happen."
The Mountaineers also need to play all four quarters.
In the first half against the Wildcats, WVU out gained K-State 221-142 on offense, but generated only 147 yards in the second half and allowed 306.
Likewise on third down, the Mountaineers held Kansas State to 1 of 5 in the first half, but let the Wildcats convert 7 of 8 in the second.
That should be music to the Horned Frogs' ears as they have scored more points in both the third (61) and fourth quarters (72) than they have in the first half (51) of games this season.
"I feel like we have a lot to play for," Holgorsen said. "I think the players feel like they have a lot to play for. What we do matters and we have an obligation to put our best foot forward, get out there, practice hard and put our best foot forward on Saturday. I think our guys have done that. We haven't finished well the past two weeks but they've been competitive. The game last week was a lot more competitive than what the final score indicated. It's not a moral victory to say we were in the game in the fourth quarter the past two weeks, that's not my point. We are battling, but it's not a winning effort."