The West Virginia Mountaineers defense has thoroughly impressed us so far this year. For conference only, non-garbage time drives, the WVU defense gives up the fewest points (1.33), touchdowns (15.5%), and available yards (33.9%) per drive in the league.
Here’s the bad news: The league’s top two teams offensively in those categories are what is left on the schedule.
Bad News (Sooners)
The Oklahoma Sooners are becoming notorious for their early conference losses, but they always seem to pick up steam as the season progresses. Lincoln Riley is 14-0 in the month of November and WVU is 0-8 against the Sooners since joining the conference. The Mountaineers are leading the league in several defensive metrics partially because they haven’t faced the top two offenses yet and partially because Oklahoma State Cowboys defensive numbers took a significant hit after facing the Sooners last week. The Mountaineers are probably due for a regression towards the mean in defensive performance simply because they are facing the best offensive opponents last.
What Lincoln Riley does offensively is nothing short of remarkable. The offense is a big-play machine with 28% of their plays being for 10+ yards and 9.1% being for 20+ yards. The play design, moving parts, and athletes Riley usually has at his disposal continue to keep defenses off-balance. Take this play as an example:
Oklahoma running a Split Zone Bluff Crack Arrow Screen— Coach Dan Casey (@CoachDanCasey) November 23, 2020
Since the ball was caught on the Arrow Screen behind the Line of Scrimmage the Crack Block is not considered Offensive Pass Interference. pic.twitter.com/80sI2s8CUe
When West Virginia has the ball
When I look at matchups in this game, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think we can compete. Oklahoma’s offense is potent, yes, but as usual, the defense remains the weaker side of the ball. As seen below, Oklahoma gives up slightly more points/play, yards/play, and explosive plays on average than the Mountaineer offense tends to get (these are all conference only, non-garbage time stats).
It feels like the OU defense is more boom-or-bust than other teams in the league. I admit I was a little surprised to see Oklahoma rank second to only WVU in the league in Havoc rating, a metric which calculates the percentage of defensive plays in which there is a tackle for loss, interception, fumble, or pass defended. Oklahoma has the ability to get teams disrupted and behind schedule, but they also are getting gashed by big plays coming in at 7th in league play for giving up plays of 20+ yards.
Oklahoma’s defense seems to fare particularly well against the run (3.4 yards/run, 22nd nationally). I think the path to victory is Jarret Doege being able to take advantage of the Sooners pass defense (7.2 yards/attempt, 50th nationally) and exploit the big-play-prone secondary. The Sooners can strike fast (see Bedlam), and the Mountaineers have not handled playing from behind well this season. The offense is going to need to stay on schedule by limiting havoc and Doege has to continue to protect the ball.
When Oklahoma has the ball
When Oklahoma has the ball you usually cringe if you are rooting for the defense. The Mountaineer D is giving up vastly less than the Sooners usually get. As we saw above, we expect to see the Mountaineers coming in somewhere around 2 points per drive or 24 points in a standard 12-possession game. You’re likely not going to see the Mountaineers win this game scoring only 24 points, so the defense needs to create a scoring chance or two, keep the explosive plays to a minimum, and try to limit Rattler and the offense to field goals whenever possible.
Recent turnover trends do favor the home team with West Virginia topping the Big 12 in turnover differential and Spencer Rattler throwing twice as many interceptions as Doege this season (6 to 3). The Mountaineers defensive strength has been against the pass this year, which is also where the Sooners get the bulk of their production offensively. The strength on strength matchup in this game will be when Rattler drops back to pass, with extra eyes focused on human-highlight reel Freshman Marvin Mims.
Oklahoma can light up the scoreboard. The Eers have to play stellar defense AND find a way to get an extra score or two to put up a fight in this game. Thirty points feels like a minimum needed, something WVU has only done twice this year in conference.
I think you can already call this season a success for the Mountaineers. Last year, we finished 3-6 in the league play. With four league wins already this year, the team is still ~climbing~ and has a “nothing to lose” shot at Oklahoma under the lights at Milan Puskar. While I don’t think we are quite there yet, competing with the Sooners and possibly stealing one of the remaining two games would go a long way for offseason program morale.
I should also mention that the Mountaineers are still mathematically alive for a conference championship bid. WVU needs to win it’s remaining two games against Oklahoma and Iowa State AND a Texas win over Iowa State AND a Kansas State win over Texas.