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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Liberty Bowl Preview: Texas A&M squares off with West Virginia in Memphis

Texas A&M (7-5, 3-5) makes its sixth consecutive bowl appearance today when they kickoff at 1 p.m. in the 56th edition of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl versus West Virginia University (7-5, 5-4 Big 12) in Memphis, Tennessee. The Aggies, who also seek a fourth consecutive bowl victory, are one of three Southeastern Conference teams pitted, in their respective bowl matchups, against foes from the Big 12 conference.
Even though the matchup marks the first between the two programs, Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin (62-28, 27-11 in three years with A&M) already maintains familiarity with the Mountaineer program via their head coach, Dana Holgorsen (28-22 in four years with WVU). Holgorsen helped Sumlin orchestrate his “Air Raid” attack as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Sumlin at the University of Houston in 2008 through 2009.
“Dana and I go way back to our days of being in the Big 12 on opposing teams recruiting Houston,” Sumlin said. “That’s how we met. He told a story the other night when I became head coach at Houston, I had called Dana, ironically we had just lost at Oklahoma to West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. That’s the first time I really had seen a tempo team. I talked to Dana about offensive philosophy coming from Texas Tech, the run game involved in that, and doing that as fast as humanly possible as I’d witnessed in the Fiesta Bowl. That was the beginning of our relationship. He has gone on and done very, very well for himself.”
Holgorsen reciprocated his respect for Sumlin and the Texas A&M football program.
“The Aggie’s have great tradition,” he said. “I’ve been in College Station plenty of times. They’ve got an unbelievable fan base. Just tremendous tradition when it comes to their football program. It’s about 110,000 people that are in their football stadium when they’re playing so it’s a special place. It’s going to be a challenge for us. I think they’re somewhere along the lines of 27-9 since they joined the SEC, so they’ve won lots of games. They’ve recruited Top-5 classes the last three years, so they’ve got unbelievable talent. Some of the coaches that we’ve talked to that have played A&M say that when you see them on the huff – when they come out on the game field, they’re going to look like one of the best teams in the country.”
Holgorsen and the Mountaineers will be without their starting quarterback Clint Trickett, a redshirt senior and transfer from Florida State University who had thrown for over 3,000 yards this season. Trickett curtailed his final season on Friday due to numerous concussions he had suffered dating back to over a year ago.
Thus enters 6-0, 206 pound sophomore quarterback and Stephen F. Austin transfer, Skyler Howard, who Holgorsen promptly named as Trickett’s replacement. Howard was the heir apparent to Trickett after sufficiently fulfilling backup duties for him late in the season versus Kansas State University and then winning in his first career start the following week against Iowa State University. In total, Howard is 36 for 65 with 483 total passing yards, five touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Holgorsen likes the strides that Howard took in the final two games of the regular season and believes he has carried it into the bowl season.
“I mean before we put him in against Kansas State I was concerned,” Holgorsen said. “We didn’t know how he would react and he handled it well. I think that gave him a bunch of confidence to where he got better in the Iowa State game and I’ve seen considerable improvement here in the last four weeks.”
Howard will lean heavily on the services of 2014 Walter Camp Second Team All-American Wide Receiver, Kevin White, who was banged up in the final week of the regular season. The 6-3, 210 pound senior leads all Mountaineers in receptions and receiving yards with 102 for 1,318, respectively. White snagged nine receiving touchdowns in the regular season as he wreaked havoc on opposing defenses, including a nine reception, 143 receiving yard, and touchdown performance against the University of Alabama earlier this season.
The “defensive coordinator-less” Aggies, who ranked near the bottom in the nation in total defense by surrendering 449 yards per game to opposing offenses in the regular season, have their work cut out for them. A strong performance from second team Coaches All-Southeastern Conference selection Myles Garrett might be a pre requisite if the Aggies wish to disrupt the Mountaineer offense. Garrett, who rings in at 6-5, 255 pounds, broke A&M and conference records by a freshman with 11 sacks this season. Interim defensive coordinator Mark Hagen believes the fate of the defense in the bowl game will boil down to the fundamentals.
“I think the difference that jumps out to me and some of us is they (West Virginia) do a little more from a run-game standpoint,” he said. “They give you more personnel groupings. The passing game is very similar, but there are a few more run compositions and more personnel-group things that jump out. Tempo wise they go fast and we certainly see that every day in practice. It will boil down like it always does to communication, getting lined up, and getting calls in on time.”
On offense, the Aggies turn to freshman quarterback Kyle Allen for his fifth start after taking over the reins versus the University of Louisiana Monroe earlier in the season. Allen, who impressed Aggieland by winning his first two starts, which included the upset of then ranked No. 3 Auburn University, lost in his final two efforts of the regular season. Overall, he has thrown for 1,028 yards, completing 96 of 157 passes and registering twelve touchdowns this season, but his being sacked ten times and throwing six interceptions hangs ominously over his head. Nonetheless, offensive coordinator Jake Spavital likes what he has seen with the young quarterback.
“He keeps getting better each day,” Spavital said. “I want to see that poise. West Virginia has an aggressive scheme at times. They will mix it up a lot. Kyle has to know when to get the ball out of his hand and make the right decisions but still show that poise he’s been showing lately. He’s done a good job the last four games maturing and hanging in there when he’s supposed to.”
A lot hangs in the balance as the Aggies conclude their 2014-15 campaign in Memphis today. They must make strides at fine tuning some of the young talent acquired in past recruiting classes, they need to capitalize on this opportunity to impress future recruiting classes, and, not to mention, defend the prestigious reputation of the Southeastern Conference. Coach Sumlin fully appreciates the challenge of West Virginia and hopes the matchup creates positive momentum for next year.
“They are a really good football team, a team that has played in big games this season,” he said. “It has some big wins and some close losses. They’ve been very, very solid. You get the feeling that that’s a hungry football team. For us, as I say every year, we look at bowl games the same way,” he said. “It’s a culmination of our year, and for our seniors it’s a way for them to leave a legacy of who they are. You like for them to go out on a winning note. We’ve always treated the bowl game as the beginning of next season.”

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