As Maryland prepares for West Virginia, CSN collaborated with Craig Meyer (@CraigMeyerPG), West Virginia beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for a Q&A to get a look Saturday's game from another perspective. The conversation has been published in two parts, with Part One published Thursday morning. Read that here.
CSN: West Virginia’s first two games have been blowout wins over smaller schools and then they had a bye week, so do you feel like you can tell how good a WVU team this is, or will their first test against a Power 5 school like Maryland go a long way toward showing you if they’re a quality team?
Meyer: Even with the 2-0 start, there's still a certain amount of mystery surrounding this team. They've looked impressive in the games they've played, outscoring their opponents by a combined score of 85-17, but that's too small of a sample size to draw too many sweeping conclusions.
To me, this will be their most telling test yet. Georgia Southern is a good team, one that nearly won on the road against Georgia Tech and NC State last season, but WVU had the benefit of playing against GSU's backup quarterback and having all offseason to prepare for them and their triple-option scheme. It may be arbitrary (it probably is), but I think there's something to playing a Power Five team with whom you have a fairly extensive history. I've seen the Mountaineers pegged as a 16.5-17 point favorite, but games like this one that come with a little more of an emotional investment have a way of being closer than they maybe should. Is WVU the better team in this matchup? So far, it seems like it is. But it will still be interesting to see how they respond to an opponent who will almost certainly test them more than either or their first two did.
CSN: Maryland really struggled against Bowling Green’s spread offense in Week 3, but has simplified some things defensively in an effort to correct that. WVU runs something similar. What should we know about some of the skill position players who will power this offense, especially QB Skyler Howard?
Meyer: The early offensive stars for WVU have been Howard, Durante and Gibson. Durante's a 6-foot-1 freshman wideout who coaches raved about in the weeks leading up to the season. You get a sense from talking to them that he may be the school's next big star at that position. Gibson is a speedy wideout who Holgorsen said is the fastest player he's ever coached. He's had some problems with drops, but he's the team's leading receiver and has shown major signs of improvement from his freshman season last year.
Howard, at least for me, has exceeded expectations thus far. He has shown signs of inexperience, like rifling short passes to open receivers that require a little more touch, but he threw on-point deep balls against Georgia Southern and carved up Liberty's defense two weeks ago with a series of short and intermediate passes. More than anything, Howard has been known for his lack of mistakes. In four career starts, and with 159 pass attempts in those games, he hasn't thrown an interception. Again, the competition in two games this season hasn't been great, but in those wins, he has proven to be a capable and adaptable quarterback.
Offensively, there are a few other guys to keep an eye on. Daikiel Shorts is the team's third wideout, with 133 receiving yards and a yards-per-catch average of 19. Wendell Smallwood is WVU's leading rusher so far, averaging 7.1 yards per carry, but he's also a strong receiver who they like to incorporate in their passing game.
Rushel Shell is more of a burly, bruising back, but the Pitt transfer and former top-100 recruit has struggled so far this season, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. Given his talent, it's hard to write him off so early, but posting those kind of underwhelming numbers against a Sun Belt team and an FCS squad has to be more than a little alarming for WVU.
One thing to really look out for is WVU's struggles in the red zone early in games. They've scored points on more than 90 percent of their red zone possessions, but early in each of their first two games, when the score was still relatively close, they would march easily down the field only to settle for field goals once they got inside the 20.
As the games would go on, they had more success scoring touchdowns, but at that point, the games were pretty much decided and it stands to reason that a) opposing defenses had perhaps let up a bit and b) there was less pressure on WVU's offense. How they deal with those problems in a closer game, like the one against Maryland may very well be, could be the difference between a 2-1 and 3-0 start for them this season.