West Virginia vs. Oklahoma State Preview
Nearly two weeks ago, the West Virginia Mountaineers opened their season with a decisive victory against FCS opponent Eastern Kentucky. This Saturday, the Mountaineers travel to Stillwater to face the Oklahoma State Cowboys. As we wrote after last season’s close loss to the Cowboys, the Mountaineers have struggled against teams from Oklahoma since joining the Big 12. West Virginia no doubt looks to climb out of their hole against the Cowboys. Without further ado, we provide our West Virginia vs. Oklahoma State preview. The matchup will be televised on ABC beginning at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 26.
Mountaineers’ Struggles against Oklahoma State
West Virginia enters Saturday’s matchup the losers of five straight against the Cowboys. A single score, however, decided three of those five losses. As a result, the separation between the teams remains narrower than the Cowboy’s current streak suggests. Some losses, however, were simply heartbreaking. For example, in 2018, West Virginia, then ranked as the seventh-best team in the country, entered the half with a commanding 31-10 lead. The Mountaineers led by ten with seven-and-a-half minutes left in the game. But Oklahoma State ripped off two unanswered scores to win the game by four.
In 2015, the Cowboys entered the half with a 17-2 lead, only to see the Mountaineers knot the game at 26 with just under three minutes left. But the Cowboys somehow retook momentum in overtime, and the Cowboys went home with a 33-26 overtime win. Even last season, the Mountaineers led the Cowboys 13-10 with twelve minutes left in the game. In truth, the Mountaineers typically play the Cowboys down to the final seconds. But they simply haven’t emerged victorious despite a string of close contests.
That the contests have been so close should come with little surprise. The two teams recruit similar levels of talent.
Will that Change in 2020?
Cowboys’ Eek out Win Against Tulsa
Amidst its challenges, 2020 plagues us with uncertainty. In sum and substance, anything can happen. The Cowboys clearly faced their own difficulties in their season opener last weekend against Tulsa. Oklahoma State emerged victorious, but barely. The Cowboys required a 13-point fourth quarter to overcome Tulsa 16-7. Their starter, Spencer Sanders, went down early with a high-ankle sprain. But in the fourth quarter, freshman signal-caller Shane Illingworth led Oklahoma State to three scoring drives to seal the win. Not surprisingly, the Cowboys’ defense–which returned 10 of 11 starters this season–played well, giving up less than 300 yards and forcing a turnover. Notably, Tulsa was zero for 12 on third-down plays, a number West Virginia Head Coach Neal Brown focused on plenty in his comments this week. On the other hand, the Cowboys’ offensive line suffered plenty of miscommunication. As a result, despite Chuba Hubbard’s place in the Heisman rankings, he averaged only 3.4 yards per carry.
Can the Mountaineers Exploit those Weaknesses?
During his game-week remarks, Coach Brown was clear to downplay the Cowboys’ perceived weaknesses, and rightfully so. As to the offensive line’s struggles, Brown reminds us that communication is critical. With limited practice time, backup quarterbacks can only take so many snaps with the starters. As a result, developing the rapport the underlies on-the-fly communication among multiple units presents challenges. Brown attributes the offensive line’s struggles more to this than anything. Perhaps Brown simply downplays the weaknesses to avoid providing bulletin-board material. But Brown is a smart coach, and his observations are poignant. As a result, he rightly anticipates improvement for that unit in the Cowboys’ second game.
Brown also said that his team is preparing as if Sanders returns as the Cowboys’ starter this weekend. The injury might prevent Sanders from playing. After all, high-ankle sprains frequently require two to three weeks of recovery. But Brown must prepare for the most dynamic of the signal-callers in the aforementioned limited practice time. Based on the limited game tape, Illingworth certainly looks much more like a traditional pocket passer than Sanders. That reduces the size of the Cowboys’ available playbook. Thus, preparing for a wider range of possibilities seems wise. Will either possibility limit the Cowboys’ explosiveness, however? Brown tends to think not.
What Can We Draw from the Eastern Kentucky Win?
The Mountaineers, of course, cruised to an easy opening win. But what can we learn from the team given the substantial difference in competition? Coach Brown certainly identifies the Mountaineers’ own weaknesses. Over the bye week, Brown focused primarily on refining the running game, working on red-zone offense and defense, and spending a lot of time working on special teams. Brown remains reluctant to say that the running game has “arrived,” even though the Mountaineers acquitted themselves well against the weaker competition. Brown, however, noted that the team required plenty of work in its secondary, primarily among the cornerbacks, and its special teams. Those weaknesses show up on the Eastern Kentucky game tape.
The defensive line, perhaps the deepest unit on the defense (and certainly the most star-studded with Darius and Dante Stills), was able to dial up pressure against Eastern Kentucky, but the unit remains angered by its missed chances. Collectively, the did miss several sacks and a handful of tackles for loss that turned into positive plays. The Cowboys certainly have the weapons at their disposal to capitalize on missed opportunities. As a result, the defensive line expects to “play angry” on Saturday.
West Virginia v. Oklahoma State Preview
What does all this mean for the game on Saturday? Very little, in fact. What we know for sure is that two teams play each other close. Therefore, fans should not expect a runaway game either way. But is this the year the Mountaineers end their five-game skid? We think so. Jarret Doege looked poised and made exceptional reads both last year against the Cowboys and last week against Eastern Kentucky. His football IQ will allow the Mountaineers to pierce a unit that prides itself on throwing multiple fronts and multiple coverages at opposing offenses. Leddie Brown’s mission to prove detractors wrong will certainly help open the offense as well. We can also expect the Mountaineers to expand a fair bit on its vanilla looks against Eastern Kentucky. The run game likely will not duplicate its 300-yard effort from two weekends ago, but it should close on and eclipse 100 yards (definitely enough to keep the Cowboys honest).
Defensively, the Mountaineers should improve as well. Tony Fields, who played efficient football against Eastern Kentucky, as he was in on ten tackles in just 25 snaps. The Stills brothers are certainly upset with their own performance and promise drastic and immediate improvement. The Mountaineers will rotate at least four cornerbacks who will complement steady play from their safeties. We expect the Mountaineers to hold the Cowboys to 28 or fewer points, and that will be enough for the 31-28 Mountaineer win.