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PREVIEW: The West Virginia Mountaineers head West for a primetime showdown with Oklahoma

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Can West Virginia keep the momentum going with another statement against perennial Big 12 power Oklahoma?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 18 Virginia Tech at West Virginia Photo by John McCreary/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

OPENING THOUGHTS

A quick review - last Saturday was just about as good as it gets, gang. Sure things got a bit dicey at the end there, but when you consider the opponent, atmosphere, and outcome that one is pretty hard to top. Take a few days and enjoy it because this weekend shit’s about to get real again.

Looking ahead to Oklahoma, I actually think we lucked out catching them earlier in the year. The last time we went to Norman in September it ended in a fairly reasonable 16-7 defeat, and in general it seems like their slip-ups in previous years have always happened right about now before their offense has really gotten rolling. The thing that worries you (aside from it being Oklahoma) is the 7:30pm kickoff, but on the other side of that coin, what better chance to make a statement and finally clip these guys before they run off to the SEC?

WHEN/WHERE

Date: September 25th, 2021

Kickoff: 7:30PM ET

Where: Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium - Norman, OK

Tickets: General Public

WATCH/LISTEN

Channel: ABC

Online Streaming: WatchESPN app with a valid cable OR ESPN+ subscription

Cord Cutters: Mountaineer fans can catch all the action on fuboTV. fuboTV is an over-the-top streaming service that carries all the major networks, including CBS, NBC, FOX, and now....the ESPN Disney networks! It also carries ABC, CBS Sports Network, FS1, SEC Network, and more. fuboTV comes with a cloud DVR feature, so you can record the game and watch it later.

Sign up for a free seven day trial of fuboTV, and get 15% off the base family plan, by following THIS LINK.

Radio: Mountaineer Sports Network from IMG (Radio Affiliates) | SiriusXM Channel 200 | WVU Gameday App (Apple | Android)

Radio Announcers: Tony Caridi (PBP), Dwight Wallace (analyst), and Jed Drenning (sideline)

Reminder: It is against site policy to post links to illegal streams in the comments.

DEGENERATES UNITE

The Mountaineers open as 16.5-point road dawgs with the over/under set at 58.5 per Oddshark. Both the spread and the O/U suggest to me that Vegas isn’t putting much stock into the fact that the Sooners struggled with both Tulane and Nebraska. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part, but I think we cover that number even if we aren’t able to walk out of there with a win.

WEATHER FORECAST (as of Monday, 9/20)

We're obviously a few days out still but it looks like it should be a nice evening for football - clear and hot during the day before cooling off to somewhere in the mid-70s by kickoff.

THE ENEMY

Where are they from? The Sooners lay their collective head in Norman, OK, just south of downtown OKC.

All-time series record: Nothing great to report here - we still haven't bested the Sooners since joining the Big 12, with our last win against them coming in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.

Last game: Last year's contest was cancelled due to Covid, but the Sooners routed us 52-14 in Norman in 2019. Here's to a better trip this time 'round.

Head coach: Lincoln Riley (5th season, 47-8). Riley was the youngest head coach in FBS at the time of his hiring and his performance over his first four seasons has more than validated the decision to hand him the reigns. His Sooners have yet to get over the hump in the CFP, but they have fielded arguably the most balanced and explosive offensive attack in America since he took over.

2021 record: The Sooners are 3-0 on the year with a throwaway rout of Western Carolina sandwiched between one-score games against Tulane and Nebraska. It's hard to know what to make of this - are they mortal or simply finding their footing? - but on paper it's not too dissimilar from our own start (with the obvious exception that they won their sloppily played opener).

NUMBERS THAT MAY INTEREST YOU

Has the Sooners offense taken a small step backwards from the death machine they were from 2017-2019? Or are they just different? Perhaps both??

KEYS TO THE GAME

LIMIT THE EXPLOSIVE PLAYS

This is the big one for me defensively. Oklahoma has absolutely gashed us during the Lincoln Riley era, averaging 9.5 yards per play against us in 2019, 10.3 in 2018, and a staggering 11.3 back in 2017. However, as shown above the offense they’ve been over the last 14 games with Spencer Rattler, while still very good, hasn’t quite reached the bar set by those units led by Hurts, Murray, and Mayfield. Of particular note is the dip in passing game explosiveness, which went from averaging a 20+ yard pass on nearly 1 out of every 5 dropbacks from 2017-2019 (18.9%) to about 1 out of every 7 last year (14.6%) and 1 out of 10 (9.8%) so far this year. This seems especially relevant in our case considering that the aforementioned offensive outbursts were powered by over 17 yards per pass attempt (!!!) in both 2017 and 2019 and 13.5 (still ridiculous) in 2018.

The most obvious (and puzzling, given Rattler’s arm talent) cause for this “regression” is that they’ve simply attempted a much lower percentage of deep passes with Rattler than they did with the previous trio. It’s possible that they feel Rattler is a bit more careless on those deep throws than his predecessors and have called fewer of them, or that a slight dip in running game effectiveness has made their vertical play-action game slightly less viable, as well, or maybe they’re just waiting for a primetime Saturday night kickoff against a conference foe to unleash him, but whatever the case, this year’s Sooners have been getting the ball out more quickly and attempting shorter throws than any other team in the Riley era.

What that means is that we probably need to be less worried about getting beat deep and more worried about flowing to the ball as a unit and tackling in space, which is something we’ve generally done very well this year (PFF has us ranked 5th nationally). If we can continue that trend and limit their YAC, we’ll limit their explosive plays, which will limit their ability to run away from us on the scoreboard, which will hopefully keep the game close into the 4th quarter. At that point anything can happen.

BEWARE RATTLER THE SCRAMBLER

Outside of the one ridiculous 3rd and 25 conversion (why did you give up outside leverage, VanDarius??), we actually did a pretty good job containing Braxton Burmeister’s legs last weekend (the 6 sacks speak for themselves). We’ll need more of the same Saturday. Rattler won’t often keep the ball on designed runs (only 6 so far this year per PFF), but his legs make him extremely dangerous as an off-structure playmaker if and when things break down. We absolutely have to maintain rush lane discipline and get him on the ground when we get the chance.

GET RID OF IT QUICK OR GET OUR TACKLES SOME HELP

My biggest concern for the offense on Saturday is that Oklahoma’s pass rush is one of the best and most productive in America. Edge rusher Nik Bonitto easily paces the country in pressure percentage (22.6%) and win rate (44%) among defensive lineman with at least 40 pass rush snaps, while PFF also lists interior lads Perrion Winfrey and Jalen Redmond in the Top 25 nationally in pass rush grade through 3 games.

I actually feel pretty good about the trio of Frazier, Nester, and Gmiter holding their own against Winfrey and Redmond on the inside - those guys haven’t allowed a sack and have only allowed 7 pressures combined on 100+ dropbacks this year. However, I'm terrified of Bonitto and fellow edge Isaiah Thomas getting isolated against our young tackles.

PFF has 55% of our pressures allowed this year coming from either tackle position (40% LT, 15% RT). The group has been improving and just played its best game of the season against Virginia Tech, but it’s still not reasonable or fair to expect guys like Parker Moorer, Wyatt Milum, and Brandon Yates to consistently handle the likes of Bonitto and Thomas on their own. If we’re calling plays where Doege has the ball for more than a couple seconds then we absolutely have to get those guys some help. Stack an inline TE over one of them, keep Leddie in to chip, whatever it takes. We've seen what pressure does to Doege and these guys among the best in the business at generating it - we can't let them wreck our game.

FEED LEDDIE IN THE REDZONE

This is an emotional one - I don't understand being the most conservative team in America for large sections of games only to try and get cute inside the 5 yard line. Just give the big dawg the ball four times when we have first and goal from the 2. Please and thank you.

CONTINUE TO INTEGRATE GREENE

I obviously liked that we got Garrett Greene into the game against Tech and mostly appreciated that we were trying to make sure he was put in a position to succeed and build some confidence, but I still thought we were too quick to pull him out and put Doege back in. It feels like the next step of this progression is to leave him in there to get his feet wet for a couple of drives, and though this weekend probably isn’t the ideal scenario for it, maybe it keeps the Sooners and those pass rushers off-balance.

HOW AFRAID SHOULD WE BE?

10 out of 10. The Sooners may not be the battleship that we've run into over the past few meetings (yet), but this is still the best team we'll play this year and they're getting us for a home night game. We'll need just about everything to go right to have a chance.

PREDICTION

It’s a shame how timing works out sometimes. On paper the Oklahoma team that we’re facing this Saturday is arguably their worst of the Lincoln Riley era (it’s important to note here that everything is relative). The offense has taken the half-step backwards from “all-time great” to just “very good”, and the defense, though improved, doesn’t seem like it’s quite good enough to make up all of that slack. All things considered, it’s a team that I think our 2012, 2016, and 2018 squads could have all given a very good run for their money, if not beaten.

As things stand, I’m fully confident that the 2021 Mountaineer defense is good enough to keep things interesting this weekend. They’ve been tossed into crap situations time and again across the first three games of the season, and outside of a handful of plays they’ve performed admirably.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to have much confidence that our [quarterback play] will allow us to match a team with Oklahoma’s talent for 4 quarters. [Bad quarterback play] cost us the Maryland game, a game that our defense had us in position to win despite going 0:4 in turnovers. [Bad quarterback play] very nearly cost us the Virginia Tech game, a game that we were in control of from the very first minute and had no business sweating out on a goalline stand. It’s difficult to imagine that [bad quarterback play] doesn’t rear it’s ugly head at some point on Saturday night and give the Sooners possessions and/or points that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.

I think we’re looking at a great game through halftime and possibly even into the 4th quarter, but it's hard to see us sealing the deal. Here's to being wrong. LFG.

West Virginia 27-41 Oklahoma