Last week’s 27-21 win over rival and then-No. 15 Virginia Tech was certainly a significant step in the climb that West Virginia coach Neal Brown has urged his team and fans to trust.
While mountains are few and far between in the plains of Oklahoma, it’s an even higher peak the Mountaineers are seeking to summit Saturday night.
West Virginia (2-1) will look to ride the momentum gathered in winning the Black Diamond Trophy into Norman, Oklahoma, where the No. 4 Sooners are waiting in both teams’ Big 12 Conference opener. Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m. with the game airing on ABC.
It had been 18 years since WVU last defeated the Hokies, and another significant streak will be on the line as Oklahoma has won all eight matchups between the schools since the Mountaineers joined the Big 12 in 2012, and most of them haven’t been particularly close. Only twice has the game been decided by a single possession, with the Sooners breaking the 50-point barrier five times and the 40-point mark seven times.
WVU is hardly alone in its shortcomings against OU, which has claimed six straight Big 12 titles with only six conferences losses over that time. But a daunting task also offers a major opportunity, and that’s not lost on the WVU coaching staff.
“Huge challenge this week with Oklahoma,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said. “Going to the six-time defending Big 12 champion — just saying that is a lot. I think it’s a great opportunity for our program. ABC, 7:30 Eastern, prime-time game playing at one of the most tradition-rich venues in all of college football.”
The sentiment is all well and good, but for the Mountaineers — 17-point underdogs entering Saturday — to be competitive, they’ll have to find a way to reverse some worrisome trends.
West Virginia has not won on the road (0-5) since the 2019 season finale at TCU and has been abysmal on the ground in those five contests, averaging just 60.8 yards rushing.
So far this season, WVU has yielded a league-high 2.3 sacks per game while Oklahoma leads the league in sacks at 4.3 per contest.
The teams also find themselves on opposite ends of the turnover battle with Oklahoma forcing seven and losing two this season (plus-5) and the Mountaineers losing seven and forcing just one (minus-6).
That last statistic has been most alarming for Brown.
“That’s been our Achilles heel this year,” Brown admitted. “Minus-five turnover margin. We haven’t done a good job defensively taking it away, and offensively we have to do a better job. They’re hard to overcome.”
The Sooners (3-0) present more than enough difficulties without the Mountaineers’ penchant for self-destruction. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Spencer Rattler was a first-team preseason All-America selection and Heisman Trophy favorite, and while the Sooners’ offense has had its moments of uncharacteristic struggle, he’s thrown for 761 yards and seven touchdowns.
Sophomore Marvin Mims (eight catches, 168 yards) leads a talented stable of OU wideouts and H-backs, and junior running back Kennedy Brooks has 210 yards and three scores after opting out of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Defensively, the Sooners are led by linemen Perion Winfrey and Isaiah Thomas as well as linebacker Nik Bonitto. The three have combined for nine tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks already. On the back end, safety Delarrin Turner-Yell has made a team-high 17 tackles while fellow safety Bryson Washington and corner DJ Graham each have an interception.
And on it goes. Oklahoma landed a league-high nine players on the preseason All-Big 12 team and has been the only Big 12 team to reach the College Football Playoff since its inception in 2014, appearing four times.
But with all that’s stacked against them, the Mountaineers did some encouraging things last week against Virginia Tech. Starting running back Leddie Brown rumbled for 161 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown jaunt, by far his best showing of the season. Aiding that was the return of tight end Mike O’Laughlin, who played his first game after missing the team’s first two contests with an injury.
Also aiding the ground game was backup quarterback Garrett Greene, who appeared sporadically in relief of starter Jarret Doege and ran for 28 yards on four carries. That’s an aspect of the offense that Neal Brown and offensive coordinator Gerad Parker plan to continue utilizing moving forward. How often remains to be seen.
“The good thing too for those guys is that they’re really close, they get along and they’ve been good for each other in the room,” Neal Brown said. “There’s some challenges when putting together a game plan because it’s really important that you keep everything for the offensive line the same.
“You can’t ask them to do a bunch of different things schematically because it’s not fair to them because you don’t have enough time to rep it, so that’s where the challenge comes in. How much can you do, how can we present difficulties to the defense with each quarterback? So there is a challenge and how you rotate them within a game.”
While Rattler and the historically potent Sooner offense usually garner the headlines, the Mountaineers, whether it’s Greene or Doege at the controls, will be staring at a stingy Oklahoma defense as well.
“They’re disruptive up front in all the ways you can be disruptive — pass rush and run stunts, the movement they put together,” Parker said. “The back-end guys are talented and gifted and they can run. They play really hard, so I’ve said it before and say it now, what better compliment can you give a group that’s well wired up, sound in what they do by scheme, which is a compliment to their coaching staff and how hard they play.”