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WVU's Bryce Ford-Wheaton (left) and Winston Wright celebrate a big play during the Mountaineers' loss last Saturday at Kansas State. WVU hosts Texas Saturday and needs a win to keep alive its bowl hopes.

The 2021 football season has gone anything but according to plan for both Texas and West Virginia, and that’s especially true of late, as the Mountaineers ride a two-game losing streak into Saturday’s meeting while the Longhorns have lost five straight.

Yet there’s still plenty to play for when the teams renew their Big 12 Conference series at noon at Milan Puskar Stadium. The game will air at noon on ESPN2 and will serve as a de facto bowl elimination game, with the loser suffering its seventh defeat of the year.

On Tuesday, West Virginia coaches insisted that there would be no quit in the Mountaineers over the final two games of the regular season and added that they’d seen none out of the Longhorns during their skid either.

“I don’t turn on the film — and trust me, that’s what I was hoping to see — but when I turn on film, I don’t see a Texas team that’s not playing hard,” WVU coach Neal Brown said. “I see a team that’s flying around. I see a team that you can tell the staff is still working extremely hard because they’ve got fourth- and fifth-year seniors that are still playing hard on offense and defense.”

Effort aside, the Longhorns (4-6 overall, 2-5 Big 12) are coming off one of the more embarrassing losses in recent memory as Texas was beaten in overtime 57-56 by Kansas last week. It marked the Jayhawks’ first conference win of the year.

And while the Mountaineers’ 34-17 defeat at 7-3 Kansas State wasn’t nearly as headline worthy, it was yet another case of missed opportunities. WVU (4-6, 2-5) outgained the Wildcats (345-299) but was undone by three turnovers, a blocked punt for a touchdown and a busted coverage on a late fourth down that led to a dagger touchdown.

“Our mistakes stemmed from a lack of details in the fundamentals,” Brown said. “Those fundamentals didn’t allow us to perform our jobs, and poor situational awareness was also an issue. We didn’t make enough plays and we’ve got to make plays. We didn’t catch balls, we had an opportunity for a pick six and dropped it — that’s easy to forget, but you’ve got to make game-winning plays and we didn’t make those.”

It’s become an all-too-familiar theme for WVU, especially in close losses to Maryland, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and at Kansas State last Saturday.

Making matters worse, the Mountaineers will be thin against Texas on Saturday in trying to save their postseason hopes. Linebacker Exree Loe is out for the season after suffering a leg injury last week, joining corner Nicktroy Fortune and tight end Mike O’Laughlin. Fellow linebacker Lance Dixon is questionable, as are wideouts Sean Ryan and Isaiah Esdale.

Texas, however, will have the biggest hole due to injury as Bijan Robinson, the country’s ninth-leading rusher (195 carries, 1,127 yards, 11 touchdowns) has been ruled out after suffering a dislocated elbow against the Jayhawks.

“It’s going to be running back by committee,” Brown said. “Bijan Robinson, I think he was a stud. I hate he got hurt, I was watching the game the other night and it didn’t look good and then I saw he was out. I hate that for him, I think he’s a special player but they’ve got plenty of guys that can play that position.”

One of them figures to be junior Roschon Johnson, who ran for 121 yards on 12 carries against the Mountaineers two seasons ago. Offense has certainly not been a problem for the Longhorns, who average 37.8 points per game, good enough for second best in the Big 12.

In addition to Johnson, Texas has plenty in the pass game to hurt defenses as well, particularly in junior quarterback Casey Thompson (1,914 yards, 23 touchdowns passing) and freshman wideout Xavier Worthy, who leads the Big 12 with 831 yards and 11 touchdowns receiving.

While those players certainly grab headlines, Brown also pointed to one that might not necessarily, senior kicker Cameron Dicker. So far this season, Dicker has made 9 of 11 field goals, has booted 42 of his 62 kickoffs for touchbacks and is eighth in the country in punt average (47.7 yards per punt).

“He’s a big-time player and you laugh because I’m talking about specialists, but I’m telling you, he’s as good at doing his job as there is in our league doing their job regardless of position,” Brown said. “He can put the ball wherever he wants on kickoffs, he can kick it as high as he wants to, as far as he wants to, he’s been consistent on field goals and now he’s punting and he’s crushing the ball and he can kick it any direction.”

Texas has been scorched on defense during its five-game losing streak, yielding 30 points or more in each of the losses. Meanwhile, West Virginia has scored 30 points just twice this season in wins over Long Island and Iowa State.

The factors, injuries and stakes add extra interest to Saturday’s game, and on top of that, WVU will honor its seniors and the 2011 Orange Bowl team as well. Although the season is growing late, Brown said Saturday will offer yet another opportunity for his team to get things pointed in the right direction.

“We’ve got Texas coming in and we’ve got two games left and it’s not too late to play good football,” Brown said. “We’ve played good football in spots this year, but we haven’t been consistent, and I promise you, that doesn’t piss anyone off more than me. Our lack of consistency is extremely frustrating and that’s putting it the mildest I can in a public setting, but it’s never too late to play good football.”

Ryan Pritt covers WVU sports. He can be reached at 304-348-7948 or ryan.pritt@hdmediallc.com. Follow him on Twitter @RPritt.

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