No. 22 Texas and West Virginia made statements last week to keep their Big 12 title hopes alive.
The dream will likely end for one of them on Saturday as the league starts to weed out a half-dozen contenders in a tight race for two spots in the championship game. The Longhorns (4-2, 3-2 Big 12) and Mountaineers (4-2, 3-2) enter their matchup in Austin, Texas, locked in a third-place tie with No. 19 Oklahoma.
Texas has climbed back in the race by winning two straight since dropping back-to-back games.
“I feel like people wrote us off too soon," said Texas defensive lineman Ta'Quon Graham.
With new coordinators on both sides of the ball, Texas coach Tom Herman called his team “a work in progress. There’s times out there where it feels like we’re playing with 11 true freshmen. Our guys are learning on the fly as fast as they possibly can.”
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger is going after his third career win over the Mountaineers but has yet to beat them at home. Ehlinger has thrown for seven TDs and run for three more against West Virginia, whose defense has tightened up this year to allow the fourth-fewest yards in the nation at 256 per game.
“We can’t take a day off,” Ehlinger said. “We don’t have the luxury of being undefeated in Big 12 play. We have no choice and every game is a big game from here on out.”
Like Texas, West Virginia has been hot and cold at times and will be challenged to give an overall effort similar to last week when it beat Kansas State at home. The offense has finally gotten a number of big plays to approach that of its defense.
Quarterback Jarret Doege is 12th nationally in passing yards, one spot ahead of Ehlinger, and has put together three straight 300-yard games.
The key to that stretch has been “being decisive, being confident in what I'm doing," Doege said. "Not trying to do too much. Not pressing. Just trusting my preparation and being decisive with where I'm going with the football.”
West Virginia is going after its third straight win at Texas. It's the first trip to Austin under second-year coach Neal Brown, whose team is 0-2 on the road this season.
“Is there any extra juice because we're playing Texas? Not in my opinion, honestly," Brown said. "It's just a Big 12 Conference game that is vitally important for both teams who are trying to stay in the fight to get to Dallas.”
Texas has come back from a pair of double-digit deficits to win in overtime this season.
“Honestly, it’s kind of frustrating because it seems like we don’t play our best until our backs are against the wall,” Ehlinger said. “Why can't we capture that and play that way all the time?”
Joseph Ossai's sack on fourth down sealed the Longhorns' 41-34 overtime win at No. 14 Oklahoma State last week.
“I think he's special, probably as good a defender as there is in our league,” Brown said. “He's disruptive and we've got to know where he's at.”
Texas allowed 530 yards last week but held Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard to 72 rushing yards. One of the Longhorns’ assignments this week is slowing down 210-pound Leddie Brown, who is averaging 115.7 yards per game and 5.5 yards per run.
SPECIAL TEAMS CHALLENGE
For the second straight game, West Virginia faces an opponent that excelled on special teams in its previous game. D'Shawn Jamison of Texas returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against Oklahoma State.
West Virginia bottled up Kansas State's Phillip Brooks, who returned two punts for TDs against Kansas on Oct. 24. Against the Mountaineers he had two returns totaling 15 yards.
West Virginia's Evan Staley is out for the rest of the season after being injured on kickoff coverage last week. He’ll be replaced by sophomore Casey Legg, who made a pair of field goals against Kansas State.