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NCAA Football: Eastern Kentucky at West Virginia

WVU head coach Neal Brown has an opportunity for a signature win Saturday at Oklahoma State.

To call Saturday’s game at Oklahoma State the biggest game of Neal Brown’s tenure as West Virginia University’s football coach may be true, but is also probably a bit unfair.

Coming in as 81/2-point underdogs on the road against a team that returns 19 starters and one the Mountaineers haven’t beaten since 2014, there’s not really any palpable pressure on Brown and this staff to win this game.

But what this game is is the biggest opportunity of Brown’s tenure at WVU. There is no question.

Brown said during the Big 12 conference coaches call on Monday that he didn’t get to watch much of the Oklahoma State-Tulsa slug-fest on Saturday as he was chasing around his 5-year-old child.

Well, you can rest assured, WVU fans were watching.

And what they saw was a Cowboys team that looked much more vulnerable than expected in holding off the Golden Hurricane 16-7, using 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to eke by. Oklahoma State was battered, losing quarterback Spencer Sanders and guard Cole Birmingham to injuries in the first half.

Star running back Chuba Hubbard was limited. Wideout Tylan Wallace was helpless until late with no one to get him the ball. Offensively, the Cowboys were lassoed and hogtied to the tune of 279 total yards.

Brown has repeated over the past two days that he doesn’t believe that performance was a true representation of Oklahoma State’s offense. Neither do I. Neither does anyone who has watched this Cowboys team play over the past couple of years.

Reading between the lines of Cowboys coach Mike Gundy’s comments on Monday, I expect Sanders to play on Saturday, though official word should come by Wednesday. But what sets Sanders apart is his athleticism and there’s no telling how limited he will be even if he does suit up on Saturday.

Hubbard is still Hubbard, the back that led the country in rushing yards a year ago. Wallace is as good as any wideout WVU will see this season. And that doesn’t mention that Oklahoma State defense, which was dominant on Saturday and features NFL-caliber talent at all three levels.

You may have noticed over the past couple of weeks, Oklahoma State has become the trendy pick to shake the system and make the College Football Playoff. I picked the Cowboys to win the Big 12. I still think they can.

And while Las Vegas, the pundits and preseason Big 12 predictions all say WVU’s chances on Saturday are not good, that’s exactly what Mary Swanson once told Lloyd Christmas.

His now-famous response? “So, you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance?”

And make no mistake, West Virginia has a chance on Saturday, and it’s a lot better than one in a million.

The Cowboys lost three starters on the offensive line, and after Birmingham’s injury against Tulsa it was a case of musical chairs the rest of the game. WVU boasts one of the best defensive lines in the conference with Darius Stills winning the league’s preseason defensive player of the year award.

While it would be an awful lot to expect the Mountaineers’ revamped running game to match the 329 yards it piled up against Eastern Kentucky, it could still prove vital against Oklahoma State. WVU doesn’t need to set school records, it needs to move the chains, control the ball and keep the Cowboys’ weapons off the field.

Two weeks of camp-like practices since WVU’s 56-10 win over EKU came at a terrific time, a time in which Oklahoma State was fighting for its life against an upset-minded Golden Hurricane team. While the Cowboys were surviving, WVU should have been fine-tuning.

On Monday, Gundy said his team’s conditioning is a major concern as practices leading up to the season opener were more vanilla than usual with concerns over the coronavirus looming over everything. He estimated his team was 75 percent of the way to where it should be and hoped it would be 85 percent on Saturday. After two more weeks of practice, anything less than 100 percent would be a disappointment for WVU.

A year ago, the season got away quickly from Brown in his first season with five straight Big 12 losses coming after a 3-1 start. Considering the overall youth of the program and the process of installing a new system, it was to be expected.

But since season two under Brown has begun, the word has been “improvement.” This Saturday, the Mountaineers have the stage and the spotlight to showcase just that.

No, a loss to the experienced, talented Cowboys wouldn’t be anything to panic about, but these are the kind of wins upon which consistent, successful programs are built. And there will be more opportunities for Brown and the Mountaineers moving forward.

But considering the statuses of both teams coming in, this opportunity is no doubt golden — especially for the coach in old Gold and Blue.

Contact Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948 or ryan.pritt@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @RPritt.