Oklahoma football: Three must-do’s for an OU win over West Virginia

Oct 19, 2019; Norman, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Lee Morris (84) catches a touchdown pass past West Virginia Mountaineers safety Tykee Smith (23) during the third quarter at Gaylord Family - Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 19, 2019; Norman, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Lee Morris (84) catches a touchdown pass past West Virginia Mountaineers safety Tykee Smith (23) during the third quarter at Gaylord Family - Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports /

Oklahoma football ranks among the top five teams in the country as we enter the fourth weekend of the Sooners’ 2021 season. Who can complain about that?

Except, despite sitting 3-0 as the schedule swings into conference play beginning this weekend, there are all kinds of questions surrounding Oklahoma’s ability to continue to squeak out wins as the level of competition gets tougher.

Only one of the Sooners’ nine wins last season was by seven or fewer points. They’ve already encountered two such games out of the first three this season. That is not a pattern that bodes well for a team many thought was the deepest and most talented Oklahoma roster in Lincoln Riley’s five seasons as head coach.

The Sooners started the season as the country’s No. 2 team in the Associated Press rankings. They’ve dropped two spots through three games, to No. 4, and a number of experts are questioning OU’s worthiness to be ranked that high.

It would not be surprising to see some college football pundits and prognosticators place the Sooners on upset alert this weekend against a West Virginia team that is not ranked but has played well in winning its last two games, including a win last weekend over then-No. 15 Virginia Tech.

At the very least, it is easy to see why the experts would jump all over OU’s ability to cover the 17-point spread that some oddsmakers, like WynnBET Sportsbook, have awarded the Sooners.

All you have to do is look back at Oklahoma’s -26.5 line in Week 1 vs. Tulane and -22.0 last week against Nebraska to understand why there is so much doubt being casted the way of the Sooners.

Here are three must-do’s for the Sooners if they are to avoid falling at home lose for the first time to West Virginia as a member of the Big 12 after eight consecutive wins:

Spencer Rattler needs to open up the Sooners’ passing game

The first five seasons Lincoln Riley was at Oklahoma (three as head coach and two as offensive coordinator), the Sooners averaged 7.82 yards per play. They averaged 6.97 yards per play a year ago, in Rattler’s first season as the starting quarterback. Through three games this season, the per-play average is down to 6.65. The primary reason is that defenses are taking away the deep throws that have been such a big part of Oklahoma’s quick-strike offense.

Most of Rattler’s passes so far have been underneath throws, forcing Rattler and the Sooners to have more patience and be able to sustain long drives to reach the end zone. Rattler’s longest pass play against Nebraska was 23 yards. Through three games, OU has just 17 completions of 15 or more yards.

Moreover, in 111 dropbacks on passing downs, Rattler has completed just one pass of 30-plus yards this season. That was a 50-yard completion to Marvin Mims early in the season-opening win over Tulane.

Against Oklahoma. defenses have started to drop defenders and force everything in front of them, but with all the speed guys the Sooners in the wide-receiver corps, you would think they would be able to get a step or two on the defenders a time or two for more deep shots. That has been one of Oklahoma’s strengths in the passing game, and with Rattler’s arm strength and accuracy, they should not totally abandon the deep ball.

Look for the Sooners to open up the passing attack more on Saturday against a good West Virginia defense that ranks 35th in the nation in pass defense.

Shut down the West Virginia run game

Oklahoma is going to see a heavy dose of West Virginia senior running back Leddie Brown, who is averaging 5.2 yards per carry. The Sooners are allowing just 83.3 rushing yards per game, which is close to what Brown is averaging this season.

If OU is successful in stopping the run, it will force the Mountaineers to go to the air more. In turn, that will open up the Sooner pass rush and quarterback pressure, which is a major factor in the Oklahoma defensive improvement under defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.

The OU defensive front of Isaiah Thomas, Perrion Winfrey and edge rusher Nik Bonitto all have 2.5 sacks apiece and will be going up against a West Virginia offensive line that ranks last in the Big 12, allowing 2.5 sacks per game.

Finish off drives and don’t settle for 40-plus-yard field goals

The Sooners are fortunate to have one of the best placekickers in the country in junior Gabe Brkic. Brkic is five of seven on field-goal tries this season and four of the five are 50 yards or longer. That gives Lincoln Riley and the offense confidence that once the Sooners reach the opponent’s 40-yard line, three points is a virtual certainty.

That’s a great scoring weapon to have, but the Sooners need to be able to avoid penalties and negative plays, keep drives alive and get the ball into the end zone when they cross midfield into enemy territory Trading touchdowns for field goals is not a sustainable winning formula, and when the offense reaches the red zone, the stakes get even higher. West Virginia leads the nation in red-zone defense this season.

Win the turnover battle

West Virginia is 92-14 since 2002 when it wins the turnover battle. The good news for the Sooners is OU is plus-five in turnover margin this season; West Virginia is minus-five. The Mountaineers were minus-four in the turnover category in their opening loss to Maryland and lost the turnover battle last weekend 0-2 in the win over Virginia Tech.

It’s a well-documented fact in college football that the team that wins the turnover battle generally wins the game.