A dreary, rainy, gray Tuesday was quite a contrast for where my head was when I thought about West Virginia’s upcoming game Saturday at Oklahoma.
That’s because the first thing that came to mind was South Beach.
This week, this game feels an awful lot like something we’ve seen before.
The numbers — nearly all of them — point to yet another painful trip to Norman, which might as well be the Bates Motel for the Mountaineers in recent years.
Yet there comes a time when a program must buck the trends if it is to take a step forward. It reminded me of a game in West Virginia’s own history, one that wasn’t all that long ago — 2003, to be exact.
You likely remember it for Quincy Wilson’s catch and run for a touchdown, one in which the Mountaineer running back plowed through Miami’s Brandon Merriweather on his way to the end zone to put WVU up 20-19 on the then-No. 2 Hurricanes. It was a game West Virginia would lose 22-20, and it was the last time the Mountaineers would lose during the 2003 regular season.
It was also a game in which WVU had no business being competitive. The Mountaineers were coming off back-to-back losses to Cincinnati and Maryland, the latter of which was of the blowout variety (34-7). The Hurricanes, meanwhile, were 35-2 over the previous three seasons, including a national championship in 2001, and Miami had defeated WVU by an average of 32 points in those three years.
West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez was in his third season at the time. Year one had been rough (3-8) and year two was a good step forward (9-4) and ended in a bowl game. Up until that Miami matchup, which took place one week short of exactly 18 years ago this Saturday, Rodriguez had picked up just two wins over ranked opponents, one of which came against Virginia Tech.
Any of this sounding familiar? Well, it should, because it’s nearly exactly what WVU coach Neal Brown’s resume looks like heading into Saturday’s game, even down to winning percentage. Rodriguez entered his third year at the helm with a 12-12 record with Brown coming into 2021 at 11-11.
After that Miami loss, which moved West Virginia to 1-4, the Mountaineers ripped off seven straight wins to close the season before a 41-7 loss to Maryland in the Gator Bowl. WVU would start 2004 8-1 before finishing with three straight losses, but the tide had turned and the table was set for what was to follow.
Starting in 2005, with Miami having already left the Big East and Virginia Tech in its final year in the league — you can draw another parallel here with the imminent departures of Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12 — the Mountaineers went 33-5 over the next three seasons, with bowl wins in the Sugar, Gator and Fiesta.
West Virginia was on its way to national prominence — and then the Rodriguez-to-Michigan thing happened and, well, you know the rest.
To me, all of what followed started that night in Miami, when West Virginia proved itself on the road on a national stage against a team that was favored by four touchdowns.
Admittedly, who’s to say where the Mountaineers go from here? But if there are any aspirations of reaching the heights of the mid-2000s, and of course there are, it could start with a good showing Saturday.
In some ways, WVU is a little ahead of where it was in 2003. The Mountaineers enter Saturday at 2-1, not 1-3, and as of Tuesday afternoon were 15½-point underdogs against the Sooners. Yet the task ahead is likely just as daunting, if not more so, as the 2003 trip to Miami.
In the eight games between the Mountaineers and Sooners since WVU joined the Big 12 — the teams did not meet last year — Oklahoma is 8-0, has scored 44 or more points seven times and has scored 50 or more five times, including in each of the last four games. The numbers are even worse in Norman, where Oklahoma has pounded West Virginia by an average winning margin of 23.8 points.
There’s nothing in recent history that would point to WVU suddenly challenging in a game like this. The Mountaineers are 0-5 in their last five road games dating back to a 20-17 win at TCU in the 2019 season finale. Controlling the clock and the ball against an explosive Oklahoma offense would seem paramount, but the Mountaineers have averaged just 60.8 rushing yards in those five road losses.
Then there’s turnover margin. In 2021, the Mountaineers are tied for dead last among 130 FBS teams with a turnover differential of minus-6, and either side of that coin — seven turnovers lost vs. only one gained — is as alarming as the other.
West Virginia has scored 30 points or more just six times in 25 games under Brown, with two of those coming against FCS opponents (Eastern Kentucky and Long Island), and though Oklahoma was held to 23 points by Nebraska last week, the Sooners have broken the 30-point barrier 23 times during the same stretch.
Look, I’m sure Brown and staff aren’t really into moral victories at this point. Judging by the reaction of fans on social media after the Maryland game, I’m not sure anyone is.
For West Virginia — or nearly any team — to win at Oklahoma, the Mountaineers need to be nearly perfect, and WVU has been anything but in recent memory. However, it is the perfect opportunity to change that.
Nearly 18 years ago, it was all supposed to go south in South Beach. On Saturday, a Sooners blowout would be the norm in Norman.
But a trend is only a trend until it’s bucked. And if the past is any indication, it may be time for recent history to fall by the wayside this weekend.