Cats In Oklahoma's Cradle

After a miserable month, just about any change is a welcome occurrence for the struggling West Virginia football team. And so it is that even the formidable challenge that comes with facing a highly-ranked Oklahoma team is being embraced, particularly by the Mountaineer offense.

The reason? The Sooners -- at least according to all indications from WVU coaches and players -- aren't likely to follow the blueprint used by the teams that have beaten West Virginia in the last month.

Those teams -- Texas Tech, Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma State -- have all played relatively soft coverage, dropping seven or eight defenders into a zone.

Oklahoma, conversely, plays what Mountaineer offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson called "cat coverage" -- as in "I've got that cat, you've got that cat." It's man-to-man all over the field.

It's not that OU's coaches aren't capable of drawing up more intricate schemes. It's just that they believe their cornerbacks are better than opponents' receivers.

"They're good. They're athletic," Dawson said of the OU secondary. "When people play man, it comes down to matchups. We have to throw and catch. Oklahoma has been good on defense this year like they have been in the past. I mean, it's not going to be easy. There's not going to be a lot of wide open guys. You've got to make plays with guys around you."

It's not proven easy for any of the Sooners' opponents. Oklahoma has only allowed three passing touchdowns all season, a statistic that borders on absurd in the pass-happy Big 12 Conference. It has yet to allow a 300-yard passer.

It's been so long since West Virginia faced this aggressive of a man-to-man defense that quarterback Geno Smith couldn't think of an example from this season. Receiver Stedman Bailey said Texas Tech played some man coverage, but not with nearly the consistency displayed by Oklahoma this season.

"I think the only team that's really played us like this the last two years has been LSU," Smith said of a 2011 home game against the Bayou Bengals. "It's one of those things where they're talented and they believe in their guys, and they're going to challenge us. I know we're going to be up for the challenge and be ready to play them. It's one of those things where we've just got to go out there and ball."

And therein may lie the faintest bit of hope for West Virginia, a team that has earned the right to be a bit of a head case at this point in the season. Everything went right in its first five games -- all wins. Until last week at Oklahoma State, extremely few positives were to be found on offense in the team's current losing streak.

Playing a team with such a simple defensive philosophy may free up players' minds, which understandably could be frazzled after weeks of frustration.

"You can sit and break it down however you want. The bottom line is when you have an opportunity to make a play, you've got to make it," Dawson said. "Right now, we're not making those plays. The worst thing you can do is sit there and point that out, because if you keep pointing that out, you're going to play uptight. At times, the best thing to do when things aren't going your way, when the ball isn't rolling your way, is just to ignore it and let karma work its self back to you."

For a team that has had precious little fun of late, this could even be a chance to get back to enjoying the game.

"I just want to go make plays as an individual and do all I can to help the team win. But I think it's more fun when somebody is playing man, because you really have to work things, try to work your routes in order to get open," Bailey said.

"They haven't allowed a 300-yard passer all season, so it's going to be a tough challenge," Smith added. "But I feel like we're more than capable of putting up good numbers on those guys and moving the ball. So we're going to be up for it, and I look forward to it."

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