In many bowl games, the winner is the team that wants to be there, that has some investment in playing well, and worked diligently in practices leading up to the contest.
There will be no such test for West Virginia in the postseason this year, so that set of markers slides to the final game of the season, Saturday's matchup against Oklahoma State.
Will WVU, the most emotionless team to take the field for the school in at least the past couple of decades, put forth good effort? That has been the case for most of the season, from most of the players, even though it doesn't show outwardly, but this is a different situation. There's not much on the line, other than personal pride and perhaps, an outside shot at a professional career for a few.
Oklahoma State has a bit more riding on this -- a finish as high as fourth in the league and a bit more resume polish for the bowl selection process. However, coming on the heels of a 12-2 record in 2021, this year's 7-4 mark is a bit of a disappointment, and it can be hard to dig out the rut of three losses in the past four games.
West Virginia (4-7/2-6) at Oklahoma State (7-4/4-4)Sat Nov 26 12:00 PM ETBoone Pickens StadiumStillwater, OKTV: ESPN2Rank: WVU: NR / OSU: NRSeries: OSU 9-4Last Game: OSU 24-3Twitter: @BlueGoldNewsFacebook: BlueGoldNewsWeb: BlueGoldNews.com
There's no good way to get a sense of readiness on this level, especially from West Virginia, which is the most outwardly reserved team seen on campus in at least the past two decades. That doesn't mean there isn't some fire (Dante Stills, Garrett Greene) but for the most part this is a buttoned-up group. The answer to this question won't come until we see the early stages of the game play out.
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The Cowboys are on a home winning streak of 14 consecutive games, which is a school record. A win against WVU would give them two consecutive home undefeated seasons covering 2021 and 2022. The last time they recorded that back-to-back unblemished campaigns was more than a century ago, in 1917 and 1918, when the school was called Oklahoma A&M and went 3-0 in both seasons.
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The game will be played on the 126th anniversary of West Virginia's matchup with the most intriguing opponent it ever faced -- the Mahoning Cycle Club. The Mountaineers were blanked 26-0 at the Canfield Fairgrounds in Youngstown, Ohio, on Nov. 26, 1896 by a group that has always sparked the imagination.
Was this a pod of early motorcycle riders (they were invented in Germany in 1885), or some dedicated bicyclists? How did this game, one of 28 played by WVU over its early history that did not involve an opponent affiliated with a college or university, come about? And why did WVU also play the Pittsburgh Athletic Club on the same day in Pittsburgh (the result was a 0-0 tie) with what appeared to be most of its primary players from that season, while head coach Thomas Trenchard apparently not only guided but also played fullback for the squad that went to Ohio?
Such musings are the rabbit hole one dives down when covering the end of a very difficult season.
Oklahoma State has managed to get seven wins without its usually tough defense or a strong running game. The Cowboys typically create big plays and have difference makers on the defensive side of the ball, but stand 117th nationally in total defense, giving up more than 450 yards and almost 30 points per game this season. That would seem to provide an opening for a West Virginia offense that has been able to move the ball and put up points in most games this year, and is looking for some success after having scored just 29 points in its last three meetings with the Cowboys.
On the flip side, West Virginia's mid-pack rushing defense might have the chance to make Oklahoma State one-dimensional, but the experience of Cowboy QB Spencer Sanders against WVU's embattled secondary provides the Pokes with an avenue of attack.
Sanders, who is also OSU's all-time QB rushing leader, isn't often mentioned as a dynamic runner, but his ability to escape the pocket and turn potential sacks into positive plays can't be overlooked. With 44 ground yards in this game, he will top 2,000 in his career, and his ability to extend plays will put even more pressure on the Mountaineer defense.
Oddly enough, WVU has only faced Sanders once during his career, which began as a redshirted freshman in 2018. He was injured in 2019 and 2020 when the Mountaineers came up on the schedule, and was a pedestrian 21-31 for 182 yards with two TDs and one interception in last year's 24-3 OSU win.
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The Mountaineers will also have to figure out how to avoid or attack Cowboy safety Jason Taylor II, who leads the league in tackles and is a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which is presented to the top defensive back in the nation. Taylor creates havoc across the board, having racked up 83 tackles, including 9.5 for loss. He also defends in the pass game (five interceptions, seven pass breakups) and has recovered a fumble.
Perhaps most impressively, 69 of his 83 tackles this year have been credited as unassisted stops, which shows his excellence in one-on-one confrontations. Often a scheme is designed to get an offensive player in such a situation with a defender, but that hasn't been an effective measure for OSU foes this year.
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West Virginia has fallen to the .500 level against current Big 12 teams, standing 55-55 all-time against the other nine members. That mark will change next year when BYU, Cincinnati, UCF and Houston enter the league, as the Mountaineers are 19-3-1 against the first three schools in that group. WVU has never faced Houston on the football field.