So far the West Virginia Mountaineers and their fans should be very satisfied with 2014. After a tumultuous 2013 there were a mountain of questions and many of them have found positive answers in the season's first 3 games. The outcome of this game shouldn't really effect that - WVU is a prohibitive underdog and Oklahoma is on the short list of team's expected to compete for a national championship. It would be unreasonable to expect a win. But what Saturday night represents is opportunity. The opportunity to make a statement on national television that Mountaineer football is back. The opportunity to vault themselves into conversation as a contender for the Big 12 championship. The opportunity to make an enormous impression on the cavalcade of young recruits that will be in attendance. And more than anything the opportunity to take a giant leap forward in fulfilling the promise of what we all dreamed this program could be when it made the move to a major football conference.
Can they seize it?
An upset over the Sooners would be an amazing achievement, so here's
5 6 things that we'll be looking for as the Mountaineers and Sooners square off.
Stay Ahead Of The Sticks
First off if you haven't yet read Bill Connelly's excellent game analysis, you should do it now. I'll draw from it in a couple spots here but the depth of his research is as always impressive and invaluable. Check it out. One of the main themes of his piece is what will happen when WVU faces "passing downs" - 2nd or 3rd down with 7 or more yards to go. Kevin White is a key component of the offense in these situations:
White leads the country with 234 passing-downs receiving yards (Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp is the only other player with more than 200 yards). It's a good thing, too; No. 2 target Mario Alford has caught seven of eight balls on passing downs but has gained just 33 yards with a 13 percent success rate. White is WVU's passing-downs offense.
Of course Oklahoma's defense with it's swarming linebackers led by Eric Striker and Geneo Grissom is built for these situations and it's hard to imagine WVU making much of a living on 3rd and long. The only way to do that is to stay ahead of the sticks on first and second down. If the Mountaineers can hammer out 4 or 5 yard gains early in possessions, it will open up a soft Sooner underbelly on defense in the form of short passes to that middle vacated by blitzing linebackers that is as of yet unexploited this season. For the first two games of the season Clint Trickett made his living on 8 or 12 yard passes and that is exactly what will be available if they can keep the Sooners honest. One way to do that is to -
WVU finally found a little success on the ground against Maryland. The numbers weren't overly impressive - 183 yards on 59 carries for a 3.1 average - but they were meaningful, especially in the game's final drive. It's worth nothing that Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison were effective late after Rushel Shell left the game with an injured hand in the second half (he's expected to play against OU).
After watching the OU defense in their first real test against the Tennessee Volunteers - they won 34-10 - it seems they could be especially susceptible to the styles of both Buie and Garrison. When they're at their best, both have quickness and the acceleration that allows them to find a hole and get vertical fast. Tennessee true freshman Jalen Hurd ripped off a pair of long runs when he was able to get to the 2nd level of the Sooner defense quickly. Rushel Shell has been the feature back in the Mountaineer offense so far but his style may be more conducive to short-yardage situations and he hasn't shown the speed to get downfield quickly. The only way to beat the OU defense is to take what they give you and Garrison and Buie need to exploit their skillset to capitalize.
OK the last two weeks I've led off with this one and I think I even said that I'd lead off with it until it was fixed but that's not working so I bumped it down. But you don't need to be a genius to know that WVU simply can't leave points on the table if they're going to compete with the #4 ranked team in America. The good news is that two of WVU's 3 failures in the red zone seemed to stem from freak plays - fumbles by Mario Alford and Shell - and as those players haven't struggled with ball security in the past we'll give them the benefit of the doubt. The third was a self-described "horrible" playcall by Dana Holgorsen when he elected to go for it on 4th down. Here's hoping he plays it a little safer this time around and takes the points.
But seriously if WVU needs to get this straightened out or it's game over. The numbers have gotten bad: this team stands 114th nationally in red zone scoring percentage - nestled right between Tulane and Illinois and they rank 92nd in touchdown percentage in the red zone. These are not good numbers. Here's a bold prediction for you: Dana Holgorsen trots out true freshman backup QB William Crest for an early red zone possession. If it works it ignites the team and crowd and give the Sooners something to think about. If it doesn't just take the field goal and you have plenty of time to recover.
We've beat this damn horse to death and I only have a single piece of information you might find useful: Josh Lambert started the 2013 season out 6/10 (with 3 of those misses from 50 yards or more) in the first four games and then finished 11 of his last 12 over the final 8 games. So maybe he just needs a little time to work the kinks out - I just hope it takes a game less than it did last year.
No Big Plays
Up until around 7 minutes left in the second half of their game with Maryland, WVU's defense had done a great job of playing exactly how the 3-3-5 is designed - keep everything in front of them and don't get beat over the top. Here's another quick excerpt from Connelly's anaysis:
Key stat No. 6: On passing downs, WVU's defense has allowed a 27 percent success rate (65th in the country) and an IsoPPP average of 0.90 points (22nd). (IsoPPP is a measure of the magnitude of successful plays. Opponent big plays haven't been very big against WVU.)
Then a breakdown in the defensive backfield led to a 77 yard bomb to Stefon Diggs and a series of horribly missed tackles led to a 72 yard run by Terp signal caller C.J. Brown. That stuff can't happen against the Sooners. Trevor Knight has looked excellent in all his outings since the Sugar Bowl but the smart money is on making him drive down the field - the more decision he makes the more likely he is to slip up. Just don't make it easy.
We Own The Night
Morgantown at night used to be a place teams dreaded. A place that former radio voice Jack Fleming once famously described as "where angels fear to tread." Frank Beamer's #3 ranked Hokies came in for a weeknight tilt and were so intimidated that the coach instructed his troops not to take their helmets off once they left the locker room for fear of flying objects. They were subsequently destroyed by a 2-4 WVU team.
Unfortunately since their move to the Big 12 the Mountaineers have impossibly dropped all 5 contests played after sundown - a streak that @WVUIE97 tackled earlier in the week. Three of those losses were in overtime and another came by a single point, but the fact remains they were losses. That needs to stop. WVU needs to introduce their new conference partners in middle America to a venue that has earned it's reputation as one of the nation's most difficult places to steal a win. No better way to do that than snag a win over the league's best team.
I'll turn it over to Jack to bring us home: ....on any given night it can happen, and these fans WANT IT TO HAPPEN!!"
If the Mountaineers can bring their A game and their fans bring their coolers, I think it can happen. I bet you think it can happen too.
Let's do this.