Can The Mountaineers Prevail in Norman?
After an exhilarating but stressful home win against 15th-ranked Virginia Tech, West Virginia takes to the road to open conference play against Oklahoma. Their conference opener, of course, represents the biggest test of the year. The Oklahoma Sooners enter the game ranked fourth in the nation. In a prime-time game that ABC will air at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, the teams will soon answer this question on the field. Can the Mountaineers prevail in Norman?
What Oklahoma Brings to the Table
We cannot accurately assess whether the Mountaineers can prevail in Norman without understanding what Oklahoma brings to the table this season. The answer, as it turns out, is not so simple. In the last several years, Oklahoma has brought to bear one of the most efficient offenses in history. On the other side, however, they typically brought a porous defense with just enough playmakers to get a few extra possessions. This season, the tables have turned.
Inconsistency on Offense
Make no mistake, the Sooners still have offensive weapons. They still average nearly fifty points per game. That said, we do not yet have a sense of what that number means. They put up 40 against a Tulane team that surrendered 61 points to Ole Miss. They managed just 23 against a Nebraska team that gave up 30 to Illinois. That said, they relied heavily on the run against Nebraska to the tune of 194 yards (on five-and-a-half yards per carry).
We will discuss Oklahoma’s defense next, but the two really work in tandem. Lincoln Riley realizes that his team cannot succeed in the playoffs without a solid defense. He also realizes that his team cannot field an elite defense when his offense takes just a minute and a half to score. Limiting the total number of possessions for both teams appears to be one way Riley wants to beat teams this year.
As always, the Sooners have the running backs to do that. Kennedy Brooks and Eric Gray both average over five yards per carry on more than thirty touches each. They rotate pretty evenly, with Brooks having 34 carries to Gray’s 33. Brooks tends to find more work in the red zone (he has three touchdowns, while Gray only has a lone receiving score). This rotation, however, keeps both sets of legs fresh.
Fans will not mistake Spencer Rattler for Kyler Murray, but Rattler still offers a threat with his legs. He is averaging just under four yards per carry this year with two touchdowns on the ground. The inconsistency comes, however, from the Sooners’ aerial attack. Rattler completes nearly 75 percent of his passes, but he lacks the big-play threats they offered in years past. Marvin Mims averages over 20 yards per reception, but he has only eight of those for no scores. Other than Mims, the Sooners lack a single player with more than five receptions who averages more than ten yards per catch.
The Sooners Play Defense Now?
Oklahoma refocused on defense over the last two seasons to mixed results. Last season, they gave up just under 22 points per game. Compared to 2018 (when they surrendered 33 points per contest), that represents a huge leap forward. They did give up 35 to Tulane in their season-opener, so it is not an unbeatable unit. While vulnerable, however, the Sooners’ defense is much improved.
The defense begins up front with Isaiah Thomas and Perrion Winfrey. Both have two-and-a-half sacks through three games. Those two have helped Oklahoma start the season averaging just over four sacks a game. They certainly scatter other players, like Nik Bonitto, Delarrin Turner-Yell, and D.J Graham, through the other levels of their defense. As a result, the Sooners give up just 17 points per game.
Again, we can ask exactly what that means given their current strength of schedule (ranked 69th in the nation). That said, we do not anticipate a barn-burner this time around for these two teams.
How Can West Virginia Prevail?
The best way for the Mountaineers to prevail is to attack the deficiencies. The Sooners’ run defense is top-notch so far. They give up just two-and-a-half yards per carry and under 85 yards per game on the ground. That said, Oklahoma looks far more vulnerable to the pass, surrendering nearly 240 yards through the air. They gave up almost 300 to both Tulane and Nebraska, neither of whom will be mistaken for vaunted passing offenses. On the other side of the ball, while Oklahoma will look to establish the run, the Mountaineers are playing extremely well against the run themselves (allowing the same measly two-and-a-half yards per carry).
Dual Quarterback Threat
We have heard of dual-threat quarterbacks before. But what about this promise of dual-quarterback threats? This may prove to be a huge key to the game against Oklahoma. If the Mountaineers can spring Leddie Brown for a few big chunks on the ground early, they can give themselves some stacked-box looks. This would allow Jarret Doege to do what he does best: find his guys in space on the outside and pick up five to ten yards. Stringing a half dozen of these together has been his bread and butter under Neal Brown so far.
But what about the other guy? Garrett Greene has proven his ability to catch defenses off guard. In albeit limited action, Greene averages seven yards per carry through three. Greene certainly has a run-first instinct. He also has a pretty strong arm, even though he hasn’t had many chances to prove it. Thinking back to his long touchdown pass to Kaden Prather in the Spring game, however, should bring that into focus.
If all cylinders fire as they should, we would expect to see a healthy balance of snaps between the two quarterbacks. We would expect Greene to be brought in, at first, primarily to call run-pass option plays leaning in favor of the run. That said, if his presence forces the Sooners to load the box (which would be an expected result), we would not be surprised to see him heave a few deep to throw Oklahoma off-balance.
Offensive Line Must Continue to Improve
The Mountaineers’ offensive line took a small step forward in the run game last week. While the numbers are indeed inflated by Brown’s 80-yard touchdown run, they certainly created holes for a dozen five-yard-plus games throughout the rest of the game. The fourth quarter was a big exception, but, in fairness, the Mountaineers became more one-dimensional by this point in the game.
In pass protection, the unit shined. According to Rivals (and their partnership with ProFootballFocus), the unit graded out at 70 in pass protection. This certainly leaves room for improvement, but it is also far better than average. The offensive line will face its toughest test yet against the defensive ends at Oklahoma, so the young tackles, particularly, have their work cut out for them. If they can consistently minimize pressure, the Mountaineers should be able to move the ball enough to keep the game close.
More Stands Like That, Please
For the most part, the Mountaineer defense played extremely well through three games. No unit is perfect, and they are thus far surrendering just 17 points per game. Oklahoma provides a test of its resiliency, and they offer the most balanced attack West Virginia has seen. If they can string together several defensive stands like the late-fourth-quarter stand against the Hokies, they can keep points off the board. We believe they can.
If they do, they can turn this into a low-scoring affair that gives West Virginia the best chance to upset the Sooners. Thus, to answer more fully: can the Mountaineers prevail in Norman? Yes, they can. It is a very tight window, but it could happen. And now, in what might be Oklahoma’s last season in the Big 12, would be a great time for West Virginia to shed that particular monkey from its back. For the viewpoint from our Oklahoma beat writer, Jason Rhea, take a look at what he has to say.