When No. 22 Oklahoma State rolls into Milan Puskar Stadium on Saturday in Morgantown, it will be with one of the most dangerous running backs in the country, but also without several key pieces around him.
Still, first-year West Virginia football coach Neal Brown and the Mountaineers expect to meet a Cowboy team that is a threat to score from anywhere on the field.
“They are playing their best football of the year,” Brown said of OSU. “Coach [Mike] Gundy has built a very consistent program. They are one of the top programs in the Big 12 over the last 10 years and have averaged nine wins a year going back to 2010. The consistency he has built in that program is what we are working for here.”
Oklahoma State (7-3, 4-3 Big 12) visits the Mountaineers (4-6, 2-5 Big 12) playing its best football of the season, according to Brown. The Cowboys feature the nation’s leading rusher and a Heisman Trophy hopeful in sophomore running back Chuba Hubbard, but will be without redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Sanders, who was injured last week at Kansas and had season-ending surgery on this thumb this week. Hawaii transfer Dru Brown is the likely starter for OSU in Sanders’ place, and the West Virginia coach does not expect much, if any, drop off from the Cowboys with the backup quarterback in the game.
“He’s a fifth-year senior,” Brown said of the Cowboys’ senior quarterback during his Thursday radio show. “He’s experienced. He can run, just like the Sanders kid. I don’t think it changes anything.”
Standout receiver Tylan Wallace was ruled out for the season earlier this month after tearing his ACL in practice, but in Hubbard the Cowboys still have a weapon worth fearing.
A native of Canada, Hubbard leads the Big 12 in rushing, scoring and total yards per game.
“They are top 10 in total offense [498.1 yards per game] and eighth in scoring offense [36.5 points per game],” Brown said. “It all starts with Chuba Hubbard. He’s the complete package who runs for power and runs with speed. He’s incredibly durable and just wears you out. He’s definitely deserving of being in the Heisman race. I wish him luck, just not on Saturday, and then I hope he goes straight to the NFL.”
The Mountaineers, meanwhile, are looking to get their running game trending in the right direction for a second consecutive game. Kickoff for this one is scheduled for noon and the game will be televised on ESPN2.
West Virginia’s rushing offense was among the worst in the country entering last week’s upset win at Kansas State, and though WVU was not great on the ground against the Wildcats, it was much better than it had been during a five-game losing streak prior to the game. Senior running back Kennedy McKoy and sophomore Leddie Brown were finding holes picking up yards in chunks.
In front of the running backs, the Mountaineers made some changes along the line. Chase Behrndt returned to his role from early in the season as WVU’s starting center with Mike Brown, who had one of his best games of the season, at right guard and converted defensive lineman James Gmiter at left guard.
“We’re getting better, but by no means have we arrived,” Brown said. “We’re getting better and we did a better job maintaining blocks than we have. I think that’s a big piece of it. The running backs ran the ball better, too. They haven’t been without blame during our dry spell running the ball. I thought they finished very well. They didn’t make anyone miss, but they finished their runs.”
Behrndt replaced redshirt freshman Briason Mays at center last week and is slated to stay there again this week. Mike Brown was making his second consecutive start at left guard in last week’s win, while Gmiter moved to the left side and started there for the second time in as many weeks.
“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do and put your best five out there,” WVU offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Matt Moore said. “You can’t keep putting the same thing out there and expect different results. But it showed. We played much better, and we’ve got to continue to get better.”