Football takes center stage on a Thursday night once again when West Virginia hosts Baylor at Milan Puskar Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. ET on FS1.
The Bears were WVU’s guests on the last Thursday night game in Morgantown in 2018 and took a 58-14 blowout at the hands of Will Grier
The two programs, each under new leadership since then, have taken different paths. Baylor (3-2, 1-1 Big 12) is now under the third-year leadership of Dave Aranda and is coming off a Big 12 Championship season. Its defense of that title is not going as the Bears would hope, but a win in Morgantown could put them on the right track.
West Virginia (2-3, 0-2) is just as hungry for a win as it looks to turn its lackluster season around. Year three under Neal Brown seemed to turn around as the Mountaineers clawed to an even record after four games, but it took a lopsided loss to Texas in Austin in week five.
The two programs have met 10 times since the Mountaineers joined the Big 12 Conference in 2012. WVU owns a 6-4 lead in the all-time series, but has traded wins with Baylor over the last four meetings.
“We’re excited to be back home, first time in a long time – almost a month,” Brown said. “It’s a night game, a Thursday night game. There’s been some classic night games here in the history of West Virginia football playing primetime TV on Thursday nights. We hope to add to that.”
Here are the biggest storylines heading into Thursday’s prime-time matchup:
Filling the hole on the ground
Besides the final scoreline, the biggest loss WVU took against Texas was undoubtedly that of CJ Donaldson, the team’s leading rusher. The freshman tailback suffered a concussion in Austin and is officially ruled out for Thursday’s game against Baylor.
Brown and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell have a difficult challenge as they look to replace that production against one of the top run defenses in the Big 12. Baylor has stifled rushing attacks week in and week out, holding four of its five opponents under 100 yards per game.
“The side effects of having a positive run game are you can hit more explosive plays, and so that’s something that we didn’t do as good a job of at Texas, and so we need to get the run game going,” Brown said. “We’ve got a chance to be really good on offense, and the expectation is that we need to be really good each and every week.”
WVU has utilized a three-man running back corps this season, but it will drop to two men on Thursday. Luckily for the Mountaineers, they will have Tony Mathis Jr., the team’s top ball-carrier this season, and Justin Johnson Jr., who has quickly become an important producer in the WVU offense.
Turning defense into offense
A team’s performance in the turnover margin has a great impact on its chances to win, and WVU has underperformed in that column.
The Mountaineers (minus-2) are one of two Big 12 teams with a negative turnover margin so far this season, trailed only by Texas Tech at minus-7. That low number is not due to a lack of chances, but a lack of capitalization on them.
“When those opportunities present themselves against good opponents, you can’t let them go,” said WVU defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley. “It’s simple things.”
Creating turnovers has been a point of focus for WVU during its bye week. Some of the team’s veteran leaders, including grad transfer spear Jasir Cox, hope to show an improved mentality on the national stage against the Bears.
“When the ball is in the air, we have to want the ball,” Cox said. “We have to understand that the ball isn’t thrown at us. It’s our job to take it away.”
Baylor and West Virginia kick off at 7 p.m. ET at Milan Puskar Stadium, and the game will be shown on Fox Sports 1. Don’t miss Mountaineer GameDay at 4 p.m. ET, the most fun pregame show in West Virginia, on our Nexstar affiliate stations. The second hour of Mountaineer GameDay goes on at 5 p.m. ET on AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh.