The Mountaineers, performing significantly better across the entire offensive line, face what they expect to be their biggest challenge thus far this season in Oklahoma’s 3-4 defensive look. The Sooners, who have allowed just 33 total points this season in wins over Louisiana Tech, Tulsa and Tennessee – no Associated Press top five team has allowed less – possess as solid a front seven as any team WVU will play, Alabama included. Remember, the Crimson Tide started three linebackers who had never started a collegiate game before. Oklahoma, conversely, has a pair of exceptional outside linebackers in Eric Striker, an All-Big 12 second team selection by the coaches last season, and Geneo Grissom, a converted defensive lineman who has scored three defensive touchdowns in his career, the most ever by a front seven Sooner player.
Inside ‘backers Domonique Alexander and Jordan Evans are solid run stuffers who can also play pass adequately. Alexander was the Big 12 Freshman of the Year and made 19 tackles in his first career start against Texas last season. Evans had a career-best nine stops against Tennessee, but is relatively inexperienced with just three career starts. Ends Charles Tapper and Chuka Ndulue are a junior-senior combo with a combined 37 starts and 56 games played in. Nose tackle Jordan Phillips is coming off a medical redshirt after being injured in the fourth game. The back issue derailed a promising season, but the sophomore is fully healthy and is set for his seventh career start and 17th game played (23 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks).
Add in a defensive backfield with experience and a corner in Zach Sanchez that has an interception in four straight games – no FBS player has more (5) over the last seven games – and there’s little question West Virginia must win short yardage situations and at least stalemate the pass rush to have a chance of winning one-on-one battles on the outside. Consider, too, that OU is plus-four in turnover margin, and, during a seven-game winning streak dating to last season, are plus 12 in turnover margin with 19 takeaways against seven giveaways. Foes have averaged just 102 rushing and 250 passing yards per game during that stretch, and this season Oklahoma has allowed just 11 points on average, good for a tie with Alabama for eighth-best at the FBS level.
So, how to go about countering all that experience, size and talent? First things first, there are always the obvious keys of blocking well, playing sound, fundamental football, winning the turnover battle, tackling effectively on the other side of the ball and being able to adequately flip the field as needed in special teams. At times, some of those – say, for example, a negative turnover ratio and a breakdown in special teams – can be offset by increased level of play in other areas, as was the case in WVU’s 40-37 win over Maryland. But there’s typically nothing that can offset a defensive line’s dominance of its opposition. West Virginia, quite simply, must be able to block to win.
The good news? The Mountaineers, with their speed, depth, solid talent and experience, are clearly the best offense Oklahoma will have faced this season, due respect to Tennessee. And, as an aside, this will be the first game OU has played outside the state of Oklahoma, and the first time many of these players will have faced a night atmosphere in Morgantown, which is likely to make less of a difference because of the experience level. WVU, with a hushed crowd while on offense, must communicate efficiently and effectively, and have next to zero mental miscues in terms of assignments.
WVU has graded out well in each of the first three games along the line, and one would expect that trend to continue. Oklahoma will try to stunt and loop, as well as attack certain gaps in hopes of drawing a lineman away from another that could be filled by a pass rusher. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops is among the better defensive minds in the nation, and he’ll continue to poke and prod at the WVU front until it proves it can hold up, or his pass rush gets burned on the back end.
Oklahoma will also close rushing lanes quickly, making it all the more imperative that backs hit the holes quickly. This isn’t likely to be a game where Dreamius Smith, with his hesitancy at times, will shine. The Mountaineers need a healthy Rushel Shell, at least in short yardage, and it must continue to expertly utilize misdirection throughout the offense to keep OU in check. The Sooners, who like to play downhill against the run, won’t be able to do so as much against West Virginia because of how much Dana Holgorsen will spread the defense, and use screens, misdirections and pacing.
Watch the interior part of WVU’s line. If Phillips demands a double team consistently, it will free up the rest of the front six to challenge the remaining three lineman and two backs, at most, with better numbers. Part of the Mountaineers scheme is double-teaming on certain plays, and those will be far more obvious. But watch in base pass protection to see if Tyler Orlosky is holding up against Phillips, or if Quinton Spain or Mark Glowinski are having to help off blocks. The bet here is Orlosky is solid, and Spain and Glowinski keep playing at a high level as WVU believes it has perhaps the best interior OL in the Big 12.
If those three play well, and force the pass rush to come from the outside, it does two things. First, it makes rushers go a greater distance to reach Clint Trickett, obviously giving the quarterback more time. Second, it opens the slot areas more for quick routes, and it might force Oklahoma to bring additional rushers from the middle, which could then be more easily exploited as well. In the run game, same deal. Winning on the inside allows for much easier operation of plays, and allows said plays to at least begin developing to where backs have a chance to read available lanes and attack holes. Watch the handoffs, and see how much time WVU’s backs have to react and begin getting vertical. If the line holds off OU for a decent amount of time, it should allow the deepest position on the field to get into the second level and establish at least a decent run game that will be vital to creating one-on-one situations in the pass game.
That’s an area West Virginia, with its speed and ability, can win. But it starts, as always, up front. Also take a look at how strong a push the Mountaineers are getting, and if, when they double team or try to slide protection, they are clearly winning that area of the field. Sliding should push one of the tackles onto the next level (the linebackers), and that’s typically when the ground game really gets rolling. If that’s not happening, Oklahoma’s front seven will be able to attack gaps and begin changing the line of scrimmage.
There are other obvious indicators of line execution as well. If a player isn’t getting beat, is he also correctly picking up his assigned rusher? Is Oklahoma slipping through the A (center-guard) or B (guard-tackle) gaps? Is Trickett getting hit after he throws, and how soon after? Can he step into the throw, or is he, as he did a few times against Maryland, having to throw while falling away a bit? Is he flushed, or is there that nice, comfortable pocket that the line has provided in every game thus far this season? Also, don’t forget that the line also plays on field goals, punts, etc. West Virginia has had protection problems on FG, and the Sooners are sure to attack that right side, as Maryland and Alabama did.
To WVU’s credit, the protection was shored up nicely prior to the final play when Josh Lambert hit a 47-yarder for the win at Maryland. But Oklahoma will certainly try and gauge the consistency of that area, and the Mountaineers know it. Take a look to the right of long snapper John DePalma and see if the line is able to stonewall the area, or if there is continued leakage/penetration. OU will likely overload numbers to that area, but the protection should still hold up long enough for Lambert to get the kick off. Again, this isn’t the only key match-up on the field, but it might be the single most imperative over the course of this game, if only because both sides are quite solid in this area and there truly isn’t a favorite. Enjoy the match-ups, and try to see which side you think has developed an advantage, if any, by the second quarter, and if some halftime adjustments were made that tilted the game by the latter portions of the third.