Can the Mountaineers Continue their Streak?
After a three-game losing skid, the West Virginia Mountaineers went into its bye week reeling. Sometimes, however, fortunes turn quickly. Coming out of that bye week, those same Mountaineers looked, well, different. They went on the road beat TCU in Fort Worth they came home and ended a three-game skid against the Cyclones. Now, they face a tough test as they host 11th-ranked Oklahoma State this weekend. Can the Mountaineers continue their streak and finally grab a win against the Cowboys. Tune in on ESPN at 3:30 to find out. In the meantime, we preview the game here.
Tale of Two Halves
Perhaps it is fitting that the Mountaineers saved their best football for the second half of the season. In the first six games, after all, they had several outings where they just didn’t seem to show up for one half or the other. Their loss to Texas Tech offers a prime example. That said, the numbers look much different before and after the bye week.
In their five games against Power Five teams prior to the bye week, West Virginia’s offense looked downright pedestrian. The offense averaged just 20.8 points per game behind 2.8 yards per carry and 256 passing yards per game. They turned the ball over nine times in those five games.
In their two games since, however, the offense has turned itself around completely. The Mountaineers average 33.5 points per game, five yards per carry, and 314 passing yards per game. Better still, they turned the ball over just twice in those two games. To match that, the defense proved opportunistic by forcing four turnovers in two games (to just two turnovers in the five Power 5 games preceding the bye week).
Is the Offensive Line Really That Much Better?
In football, we have convenient rules of thumb that prove true far more often than not. One such rule is that an offensive line unit, absent the return of injured starters, does not typically improve much during the season. Solid trench work comes from offseason strength and conditioning and repetition in training drills. For every rule, however, we must have exceptions.
This season, the Mountaineers seem intent to prove the exception. In fact, based on the Pro Football Focus grading system, with grades provided courtesy of Rivals, the offensive line grades substantially better in the last two games than the first five. Indeed, the average grade among the starting offensive linemen for the first half of the season was 62, and in the second half (so far) that number rose to 66.
By the eye test, Zach Frazier‘s play clearly improved. The PFF grading system bears that out. In the first half, Frazier earned a 62 for his play. In the second half, however, he grades at 75. The line kept the pocket clean for Jarret Doege well over 85% of passing plays in the last two games combined, well above average. If the line continues to take these forward steps, fans have every reason to be excited about where the Mountaineers could finish.
Oklahoma State Playing Well
That said, every week in the Big 12 (except maybe one) presents a different challenge. This week, the Mountaineers test their improved offense against the best defense in the conference. Oklahoma State’s defense, in fact, surrenders just 18 points per game, good for 18th in the country. They are not particularly vulnerable against either the pass or the run. At 295 yards per game, they rank 7th in the country. They also ranked 7th in yards per carry, surrendering under three yards per carry. Indeed, they will prove a tough test.
Oddly, the Cowboys do not pack as big of a punch offensively as they generally do. They ranked 60th in the nation at just 29.4 points per game. Veteran Spencer Sanders leads the offense capably, accounting for 1738 total yards (298 of which come on the ground) and 15 total scores (11 through the air). The team gives up just over a turnover per game.
Jaylen Warren leads the Cowboys in rushing with 850 yards and six touchdowns. He averages just shy of five yards a carry. Through the air, Tay Martin and Brennan Presley lead the way. Martin boasts 529 yards on 36 receptions and four scores. Presley leads the team with five touchdown receptions. Thus, while the offense looks a step slower than it has in recent seasons, they are still capable of scoring in bunches.
Keys to the Game
For the Mountaineers, then, the keys to the game center on building on their strengths and limiting the Cowboys’ big-play potential.
First, the Mountaineers’ offensive line must continue to build on its own momentum. If it can clear lanes for Leddie Brown and Tony Mathis, West Virginia should be able to open the field nearly as well as it did against Iowa State. If they can also keep Doege’s pocket relatively clean, the offense should be able to sustain enough drives to put points on the board.
Second, West Virginia must spy Sanders enough to limit his dual-threat abilities. They’ve certainly seen enough looks so far this season from scrambling quarterbacks to understand how critical it is, especially on third down, to keep the quarterback behind the line to gain. If they can do this, they can narrow the Cowboys’ focus and keep the game close.
Finally, the Mountaineers’ biggest flaw against the Cyclones was chunk plays. They gave up quite a few. Given the strength of Oklahoma State’s team this year, Head Coach Neal Brown simply must stress cleaning the issues (often missed assignments) up. If West Virginia gets behind early, they will have an even steeper hill to climb.
Can the Mountaineers continue their streak? The answer depends largely on those three keys.