The first, a 50-49 shootout during the emergence of Tavon Austin, the tailback, WVU led with less than a minute remaining, and lost on a fourth and goal touchdown and the resulting point after. Last season, West Virginia hung in as a significant underdog before dropping a 16-7 decision on the road. Now, the Mountaineers, again an underdog to among the foremost preseason picks to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff, are approaching this contest in a vastly different way than it did last season’s meeting in Norman.
“We are more experienced and more confident,” said B back Cody Clay, who has twice faced the Sooners. “I can tell you last year we had guys who were playing multiple offensive line positions. Now, we know where we are playing and we aren’t switching around all the time. It’s different, real different.”
But West Virginia is, against a vaunted foe like Oklahoma (3-0), entering a vastly different set-up than what it faced in the opener against No. 2 Alabama. Oklahoma has experience at linebacker, a proven quarterback in Trevor Knight – who torched Alabama in the Sugar Bowl for 348 yards and four scores – a fantastic offensive line and a secondary that closes passing windows as fast as any in the nation. The Sooner defense, like Alabama, is allowing just 11.5 points per game, while the offense has rolled along, putting up 48. 52 and 34 points in victories over Louisiana Tech, Tulsa and Tennessee.
Both teams are minus key players, with West Virginia cornerback Daryl Worley indefinitely suspended by head coach Dana Holgorsen. Veteran corner Ishmael Banks is likely to get the start in his place, though Banks might have to shake off some early rust after spending the first three weeks on the scout team after being academically suspended from game play by the NCAA for the first three contests. Banks (6-0, 184 lbs.) has played in 36 career games with 16 starts. He started all 12 games last season. Worley has the team’s only two turnovers this year with his pair of interceptions.
“The speed of the game is so much different than practice,” Clay said. “Getting in there and getting game reps and not just practice reps and to see it is something that you have to do.”
Oklahoma tailback Keith Ford, the team’s leading rusher with 194 yards and five touchdowns, is out after fracturing a foot in the 34-10 win over the Vols. OU will counter with Samaje Perine (177 yds, 1 TD) and Alex Ross (132 yds, 3 TD). Knight is also a dangerous runner, and connected on 20 of 33 passes for 308 yards and a score versus Tennessee one game after hitting for 299 yards passing against Tulsa as he became the 25th player in Oklahoma history to throw for more than 1,000 yards, doing it in just six starts.
The defense, meanwhile, has shut down all three foes thus far, and has an exceptional mix of experience, speed and size. Linebacker Eric Sticker, a preseason All-Big 12 pick, made a career-high eight tackles against Tulsa, and has been placed on the Bednarik, Butkus, Lombardi and Nagurski watch lists, encompassing every major defensive award for his position in the nation.
Corner Zack Sanchez has recorded an interception in four straight games after leading the league in the stat last year. Counterpart Julian Wilson had a 100-yard return for touchdown against Tennessee, and safety Quentin Hayes is as solid a safety as WVU will face this season.
"I want people to underestimate us a little bit. However, after a certain point it is a little bit of a respect thing if we keep winning games."-Cody Clay
It begs the question, with all that talent, including what seems a clear advantage in special teams , why are the Mountaineers feeling as confident as they are? Clay said the reasons were obvious, including that “the past two years, we have played well, it just wasn’t enough. We are more confident and we feel better about the game. I feel really good about this year. It’s cool because how many people get to play against two top 5 opponents in the first month, or at any time? What’s crazy is that we are going up against the No. 2 team in the country, and we thought we could win. Now we are playing No. 4, and we all think we can win. I’ve played them two times, so I know what to expect. We are going to go play our game, and whatever they do is up to them.”
West Virginia (2-1) is clearly improved, racking up 94 points in the last two games as quarterback Clint Trickett, the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week, reached the 500-pluss yard mark for the first time in his career in the 40-37 win at previously-unbeaten Maryland. Kevin White, with 13 catches and 216 yards, has showcased himself as a premier threat. The offensive line, especially along the interior, is as good as any in the Big 12, and the backfield stable is talented and deep. Add in a revamped, simplified defense that largely thwarted UM on its final seven drives despite being put in bad field position, and the Mountaineers are a very dangerous underdog.
“Clint Trickett is the biggest difference,” Stoops said, comparing last year’s WVU team to the 2014 edition. “He’s playing well. They’ve been highly productive in their ability to go to the run game, their ability to throw the football. They’ve always run it well, and people don’t talk about that enough. Dana wants to run it when he can, and they do it well. But Trickett is the difference. He’s has done that, and they have several receivers, Kevin White especially, but also several other guys. He’s a great player making big plays in every game. Physical, tough going after the football. Really good football player.
“They are playing more in the odd front defensively, and they are very sound and physical. We look at very game with great respect and whom we are playing. We are the ones who have to play, so we don’t buy in to the talk. We have always looked at them as very difficult and challenging.”
If West Virginia can somehow gain the split between Alabama and Oklahoma, it will not only splash itself onto the national scene and certainly crack the Top 25, but also manage a .500 mark against two of the best three teams in the nation over the last six years. Dating to 2008, only two programs – Alabama and Oregon – have a better winning percentage than Stoops’ Sooners, who are 67-17 (.798) in that time. A win over the Mountaineers would make Stoops the first coach to reach 100 Big 12 victories.”
“Oklahoma isn’t that much different,” Clay said of the changes between last year and this. “It’s the same team and same schemes. To be honest with you, I don’t want to show in the rankings because I want people to underestimate us a little bit. However, after a certain point it is a little bit of a respect thing if we keep winning games.”