Previewing OU vs. West Virginia: Sooners Begin Quest for a 9th Big 12 Crown


Nothing comes easy in the offensive-minded Big 12, where the scoreboard is constantly ringing up numbers and defenses struggle to find some kind of dignity. OU vs. West Virginia on Saturday ushers in the new conference season for both teams and, once again, you can count on the two offenses putting a lot of stress and strain and plenty of points on the defensive units.

This is one of those kind of games in which the team that has the ball last is likely to come out the winner.

West Virginia comes into the game as the 23rd-ranked team in the current Associated Press Top 25 (21 in the USA Today Coaches Poll); the Sooners are No. 15 in the AP poll and No. 14 in the Coaches Poll. The two teams have played each other only seven times in history, with OU owning a 5-2 record. This will be the fourth time they have met as members of the Big 12 – in all three times previously as the conference opener for both schools – and Oklahoma has won all three times with the last two of those victories coming at West Virginia.

Sep 26, 2015; Morgantown, WV, USA; West Virginia Mountaineers running back Wendell Smallwood runs the ball up the middle against the Maryland Terrapins during the third quarter at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

West Virginia is averaging 43.3 points a game while allowing just 7.7 per game to its three opponents this season. The big guns on offense for the Mountaineers are quarterback Skyler Howard, who ranks 4th nationally in passing efficiency and No. 6 in passing yards per completion (15.8); running back Wendell Smallwood, averaging a team-best 110.3 yards per game and 6.9 yards per carry; and wide receiver Shelton Gipson, who is averaging over 100 receiving yards per game and a Big 12-leading 27.4 yards per catch.

An important matchup in this game is Oklahoma’s passing offense (371 yards and 3.3 touchdowns per game, No. 8 in the country), led by quarterback Baker Mayfield and his No. 1 target, Sterling Shepard, against the West Virginia defense that ranks 29th in the nation in total defense and 17th in passing yards allowed per game (154 ypg).

Conversely, though, OU must do a better job defending West Virginia’s passing game than the Sooners did in their last game against Tulsa.

Bob Stoops was asked in his weekly press conference on Monday what a reasonable expectation for college defenses these days with more and more teams going to spread offenses and putting up big yardage numbers seemingly every week. “A win,” was the OU head coach’s reply. “A win. I think TCU’s probably pretty satisfied with their win last weekend (55-52 over Texas Tech).

“You’ve got to be able to hold serve (and score a lot), as well,” he said.

The Sooners won last year’s game, holding the West Virginia offense to 137 yards rushing while piling up 301 of their own on the ground largely behind Samaje Perine, who gashed the Mountaineers for 242 yards by his lonesome. This year’s game plan for OU should be very different, with the Sooners going to the air much more frequently and effectively.

Several notable numbers to keep in mind that could have a bearing on the outcome of the game:

  • The Sooners are 92-8 at home in Bob Stoops’ 17 seasons as head coach, and all 100 games have been a sellout. Oklahoma is 13-2 at home under Stoops following a bye week, and 16-4 at home under him against ranked opponents.
  • West Virginia is 72-10 since the 2002 season when it wins the turnover battle. The Mountaineers are 96-12 since 2000 when scoring 30 or more points, and 50-4 when they score 40 points or more in a game.

Three Key Factors to Watch for in the Game

Sep 19, 2015; Norman, OK, USA; Tulsa Golden Hurricane wide receiver Keyarris Garrett (1) catches a pass while covered by Oklahoma Sooners cornerback Zack Sanchez (15) during the second quarter at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

1) West Virginia is expected to attack OU offensively in much the same way that Tulsa did. The Sooners’ defense allowed 603 yards of total offense and 427 passing yards in defeating Tulsa two weeks ago. If this doesn’t get fixed and fast, Oklahoma is in for a rocky ride through the spread-happy Big 12. The Mountaineers’ quarterback Skyler Howard has completed 69 percent of his passes this season, and has thrown nine touchdown passes, one fewer than OU’s Baker Mayfield. Ten different West Virginia receivers have caught passes through three games. What adjustments the Sooners have made since the Tulsa game will be on full display early, as the Mountaineers are all but certain to test the perceived problems in the back end of the OU defense.

2) The Sooners will need to get good run production from Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Perine had a breakout game last season against the Mountaineers, running for 242 yards and four touchdowns in OU’s 12-point win, but he also had a more experienced offensive line in front of him, helping clear the way. He probably won’t duplicate that same effort this time around, but if he is able to ham-and-egg-it, applying his thunder to Mixon’s lightning and keeping West Virginia’s 26th-ranked defense honest, the Sooner receivers should be able to spread the field and stretch the defense enough to open up big plays from the Sooners’ new Air Raid passing game. A solid running game will also help the Sooners control the clock and keep the West Virginia’ 12th-ranked offense on the sidelines and off the scoreboard.

3) Ball security is imperative in this game for Oklahoma, and while they are at it, it would be nice for the OU defense to force a few turnovers of its own. West Virginia leads the country in turnover margin, with nine more takeaways than giveaways after three games. Nine of the Mountaineers’ total takeaways this season have been pass interceptions. Safety Karl Joseph is the one to keep an eye on in the West Virginia secondary. The senior has picked off four passes already, tied for the most in the nation.

My pick: Oklahoma 38, West Virginia 27 – Both teams possess outstanding offenses and better than average defenses. Rushing yards will not be easy for the Sooners, but their running backs are better than West Virginia’s, and the OU defensive front seven will make certain of that. The Mountaineers have been a ball-hawking bunch of vigilantes this season, especially in picking errant balls out of the air. OU will do a good job of minimizing offensive mistakes and will win the game with superior special teams play.