THE 8-1 MOUNTAINEERS ARE PAID A VISIT FROM 8-2 OKLAHOMA. WEST VIRGINIA STILL HASN’T BEATEN THE SOONERS SINCE JOINING THE BIG 12; CAN WE EXORCISE OUR SECOND DEMON OF THE YEAR?
Record: (8-2). The Sooners started the year by dropping 2 out of their first 3 games, stumbling out of the gate against Houston before getting blasted by Ohio State. However, they’ve made extremely short work of their conference slate since then, and have really only looked vulnerable twice in their last 7. The team we’re facing this week is very much the team that entered the season ranked 3rd in the polls.
HC: Bob Stoops. Stoops is one of THE coaches in college football, and has been for quite some time. He’s in his 18th year at the helm for the Sooners (beating Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz by one day for longest active tenure) and is the winningest coach in school history, leading the Sooners to 9 conference titles and a school-record 17 consecutive bowls.
OC: Lincoln Riley. Riley is in his 2nd year in charge of the Sooner offense after winning the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant in his 1st. He spent the previous 5 years with Ruffin McNeil at East Carolina, where he helped the Pirates more than 50 individual and team records for offensive output, suggesting that last year’s recognition won’t be a one-time occurence.
DC: Mike Stoops. Stoops is 5 years into his second stint at Oklahoma after spending 8 years as the head coach at Arizona. His defenses have generally been very good over that period, but departures of several core players has seen them take a small step backwards this year.
Apologies for the ghetto pic this week, trying to work from my phone. The comparison looks about how you’d imagine though: Oklahoma has the better offense while we have the better D.
OUR OFFENSE VS THEIR DEFENSE
Players to watch: CB Jordan Thomas, LB Jordan Evans, LB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo
Oklahoma returns several key players from last year’s unit, including a couple in Jordan Thomas and Jordan Evans who played very well against us a year ago. However, they lost a couple key guys as well, most notably rush end Erik Striker and corner Zach Sanchez. Striker in particular had been a constant foil to our plans over the past several years, and I think I speak for most Mountaineers when I say, “F that guy, and good riddance.” His departure is one of the causes of their slight regression this year, but as I mentioned, they still have plenty of talent on that side of the ball.
In general, the Sooners have been strong against the run but weak against the pass, but that could be a result of the nature of their opponents as much as their own faults. Simply put, they play in the Big 12. However, that doesn’t change the fact that teams we’ve beaten have moved the ball on them. They’re susceptible to the pass, and as long as we stay away from Jordan Thomas (1 INT, 15 PBUs) I think we can get after them that way too.
The keys to this game in my opinion are somewhat related and both revolve around our quarterback: we need to protect him better, and he needs to take much better care of the ball. Everybody has been happy to pile on Skyler these last couple weeks, and to be fair he has regressed a bit, but I don’t see anybody talking about one of the causes of that regression: our offensive line hasn’t been performing to the standard they set over the first 5 games. Prior to TCU we were in the Top 10 nationally in both sacks and TFL allowed, but we’ve allowed 12 sacks and 32 TFL in the 4 games since then. That’s not anywhere near good enough, and it has to improve Saturday night if we’re going to win.
Now to that other point, as much as I’d love to exonerate Skyler, he hasn’t been nearly good enough either. It’d be great if he had a nice, clean pocket to throw out of every play, but unfortunately the other teams are getting their school paid for too. Pressure is going to happen, and he needs to do a much better job staying composed when it does. We have a hell of a defense that’s stood up and gotten stops even when faced with a short field, but that doesn’t mean you can be reckless, and that’s what some of those plays against Texas and Oklahoma State were. There is reason for hope this week though.
First, the fact that the line hasn’t played well in a few weeks makes me think they’re due, and playing a Striker-less Oklahoma offers a chance for revenge after last year.
And second, Oklahoma hasn’t been particularly good at generating turnovers this year. They’ve only forced 12, which ranks just 98th nationally. As I said earlier, the Jordans Thomas and Evans are both capable of creating them, but outside of those two they don’t have a ton of guys who will change the game defensively if we don’t just throw it right to them. If Skyler can play a relatively clean game then I like our chances.
OUR DEFENSE VS THEIR OFFENSE
Players to watch: QB Baker Mayfield, RB Samaje Perine, RB Joe Mixon, WR Dede Westbrook
Point blank, the Sooners have the best offense we’ve played this year. They’re ranked 3rd nationally in total offense (557.4 ypg) and 9th in scoring (44.2 ppg), and everything starts with that 3-headed monster in the backfield, which with Perine back from injury is again as good as any trio in the country. Atleast one of those three has touched the ball on 606 of Oklahoma’s 736 offensive plays this year (82%), and if you extend that group to include Dede Westbrook, the foursome has accounted for 89% of their yards (4938/5574) and 86% of their touchdowns (51/59). The good news here is that you know if you can slow down one or even two of those guys you’ve taken away a good chunk of their offense. The bad news is that it’s way easier said than done.
The top priority needs to be stopping the running game. They’re running the ball 56% of the time this year and their ability to establish it lays the foundation for much of what they do offensively, whether they’re calling RPOs to freeze the D or running play-action to get Mayfield outside the pocket. Fortunately, if there’s a relative weakness (read: relative for Oklahoma) on this offense it’s along the line. They’ve consistently allowed opposing teams into their backfield, and rank 5th and 8th in the conference in sacks and TFL allowed, respectively. Our defensive line has been woeful at generating push, ranking 8th and last in the conference in the same, so we’re still going to have to commit extra bodies to generate pressure, but if we can slow them down, especially on early downs, it’ll help us dictate tempo and keep them off-balance as the game wears on.
Oklahoma’s passing attack has several potent weapons, as well. Joe Mixon is actually their second leading receiver, and Mark Andrews and Geno Lewis have done well steeping into complimentary roles. The main threat though is Dede Westbrook, who has filled the departed Sterling Shepard’s shoes and then some. He’s near the top of the country in most of the relevant statistical categories and has been especially good in their last seven games, catching 51 passes for 1100 yards and 14 touchdowns over that period. I expect Westbrook to be Rasul Douglas’ responsibility this week. Douglas looked lost against the Sooners a year ago but he’s probably been the best player on our defense so far this season, so their matchup should be a great one.
500+ words of effusive praise later and I’ve barely mentioned their best player. So here: Baker Mayfield. Mayfield is again their main playmaker, and though he’s running it a bit less effectively this year, his passing numbers are up across the board despite 1 less attempt per game, which suggests that he’s probably playing much more efficiently overall. And that’s a bad sign for us, considering that he was one of the best in the country last year.
Mayfield is at his best when improvising, so we’re going to have to be extra disciplined with regards to our rush lanes this week or we’ll risk him breaking contain and gunslinging. They’ve been outstanding at generating big plays over the past several weeks, but if we can keep him in the pocket it’ll go a long way towards preventing that. I’m expecting us to try to play him like we did Pat Mahomes earlier this year: aggressively pressure from multiple angles to create confusion and disrupt timing.
Oklahoma looks to be in about the middle of the road in most statistical categories. The two areas where we need to be careful are on punt and kickoff returns. Their kickoff returns are particularly dangerous with Joe Mixon, who we need to swarm before he gets up a head of steam.
The other thing to watch for this week I think is our own place kicking game. We’ve wondered all year if/when Molina might have to make a game-winner for us this year. I can’t help but wonder if tonight, in the wind and rain and snow, is the night. If it is, here’s to the lady coming through.
This is the one we’ve had circled since they released the schedule. It’s ended up mattering more than most of us would’ve dared to hope, but here we are. 8-1, with the conference bullies coming to our house for a night game. We’ve been disrespected in the polls for 3 straight weeks now, with the Committee citing the lack of a signature win as their reasoning. Let’s go fucking get it then.
West Virginia 41 Oklahoma 40