West Virginia was flying high when Texas came to Morgantown last November for a Big 12 Conference showdown and were firing on all cylinders with quarterback Will Grier leading the way.
But Grier suffered a season-ending injury to his throwing hand during a first-quarter run and the Longhorns spoiled the Mountaineers’ party, clinching their own bowl eligibility in the process on West Virginia’s home field.
Fast forward to this season: West Virginia and Texas, 13th and 17th, respectively, in the first College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday, are tied for the conference lead with No. 7 Oklahoma heading into the final month of the season.
And the Mountaineers are chomping at the bit to enact a bit of road revenge when the two sides square off Saturday afternoon as Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin in what amounts to a Big 12 Championship elimination game.
“This one is one we’ve been looking forward to for a while,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “It didn’t quite end the way we wanted it to last year, and we haven’t forgotten about that.”
Holgorsen said Monday that his team’s blocking and tackling were far better last Thursday night in the Mountaineers’ surprisingly easy 58-14 victory over Baylor, a team that took Texas down to the game’s final play on Oct. 13 in Austin.
Offensively, West Virginia (6-1, 4-1 Big 12) had its highest total yardage output in a Big 12 game so far this year against Baylor and its second-best performance of the season.
Grier was his usual explosive self, averaging 13 yards per pass and nearly 21 yards on his 17 completions. The run game generated 172 yards for its third-highest total of the season.
WVU even got a couple of big plays from the run game, one coming on a 79-yarder by Tevin Bush and the other by Martell Petaway on a 33-yard touchdown burst late in the second quarter.
“A lot of guys in our locker room have been to Austin, been on that field,” Holgorsen said. “I don’t think we’ll be surprised by any of the excitement that they have surrounding around their program at this point in time. It’s the next one; you have to get ready to play every week.”
Texas heads home after a 38-35 loss at Oklahoma State last Saturday that dropped it from sixth in the nation. The Longhorns (6-2, 4-1) allowed Oklahoma State four touchdowns and a field goal and 328 yards offense in the first two quarters in digging a huge hole from which it did not emerge.
Not even a gutsy second-half performance from quarterback Sam Ehlinger (283 yards, two touchdown passes, two rushing TDs), but a late charge could not save the Longhorns this time.
The setback in Stillwater snapped a six-game winning streak for Texas. The Cowboys have defeated the Longhorns four straight times and seven of the past nine meetings.
“That’s a really upset and dejected locker room, but they are very, very together,” Texas coach Tom Herman said after the loss. “I love the fact that one loss hurts that bad — we had guys in tears — and to think how far we’ve come where one loss matters that much, and it should, means we are heading in the right direction.”
Herman said he expects his team to bounce back from the loss to Oklahoma State, saying the Longhorns can continue to define their season by the way they respond.
“We responded fantastically to the opening season loss (to Maryland),” Herman said. “I don’t think anybody can dispute that. And so this is very similar. So now we’re going to figure out, you know, what’s really inside of our guys.”
Saturday’s game will be the eighth meeting between West Virginia and Texas, with the Mountaineers leading the series 4-3. The teams first met in 1956 and resumed the series in 2012 when West Virginia joined the Big 12.
Each school has won three games in the six meetings as Big 12 opponents. WVU has won three of the four previous meetings played in Austin, including a 24-20 win in 2016.