The Mountaineers, 0-3 against Oklahoma Sooners since joining the Big 12, have been in each game into the fourth quarter before dropping the trio by a combined 22 points. Along with Kansas State, Oklahoma remains one of only two teams WVU has yet to defeat in the conference, and the time seems to be now for a program intent on proving it has moved on from depth and other issues and is ready to blossom into a legit contender.
“I’m anxious to get into Big 12 play,” Holgorsen said. “We know what we’re getting into at Oklahoma. We understand the history and tradition and their winning percentage and the success they have had. We have a lot of these games coming up in the next month. I think we are prepared as well as we can possibly be. I look forward to getting in there and seeing what happens.”
The numbers look promising. WVU’s defense tops the nation in points allowed per game, and the unit has forced 11 turnovers. Against just the two miscues off the offense, the Mountaineers are plus-nine in the category, which also ranks first. The offense, averaging 43.3 points per game, also rates in the top five in passing efficiency and 12th in total yardage at 543.3 per outing. But there’s little question the team has yet to be truly challenged by an even average level Power Five program, let alone one with a track record like Oklahoma.
Among programs from Power Five conferences, Oklahoma is one of only nine that has averaged 10 or more victories over that past five seasons. Add in the Sooners’ Big 12-best 54-15 overall mark, 32-12 in conference, and a winning record against Top 25 teams over the last five years and it only heightens the challenge West Virginia faces.
“It’s not the easiest thing to do for sure” Holgorsen said. “We feel like we have been in the game in the last three years going into the fourth quarter and didn’t finish. We didn’t finish it the way we needed to get the victory.”
The Mountaineers have been plagued by either a severe lack of offense, or the ability to score points in bunches but not stop Oklahoma. There have been scores like 50-49 and 45-33, and a 16-7 game in which West Virginia went scoreless for the final 51 minutes of play. There appears to be better balance and quality to this team, and the sense that it has finally settled into itself as a program and its new home among arguably the most explosive offensive conferences in the nation.
“Being in the league for four years and having as many veteran guys as we have, they understand Norman and what that’s like and Oklahoma and what great players they have. We are looking forward to going there.”
The game matches Holgorsen against his own protégé in Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. Riley and Holgorsen served on the same Texas Tech staff before Holgorsen left for Houston, then Oklahoma State before being named head coach at West Virginia. Riley eventually took his first coordinator position at East Carolina before joining Bob Stoops’ staff this offseason.
“It’s been fun to watch him grow,” Holgorsen said. “He was a really young guy when he was with me at Texas Tech. He was always around, and his wife, Caitlyn, was actually the nanny for my kids. So I know the family extremely well. He’s a bright young coach that fell into a pretty good situation at Texas Tech and had some success, then obviously (ECU head coach) Ruffin McNeil took him to East Carolina. It’s been fun to watch him develop.”
Oklahoma has averaged 41.3 points per game behind quarterback Baker Mayfield. The Texas Tech transfer beat Trevor Knight for the position after famously splashing onto the scene as the first walk-on true freshman to start a season-opener at a BCS school, as he did with the Raiders in 2013. Mayfield has completed 74 of 110 passes for 1,062 yards with 10 touchdowns against two interceptions. That’s a passer rating of 174.7. Mayfield also has a stable of skill position talent like receiver Steering Shepard (18 rec., 286 yds, 2 TD) and back Samaje Perine, who racked up 242 yards and four scores against WVU last season.
“He’s a ball player,” Holgorsen said of Mayfield. “We didn’t play against him when he was at Texas Tech, but we watched all his games. Then wining the job at Oklahoma, he had to beat out a bunch of pretty good QBs to win that. He’s an exciting guy who understands the offense and likes to play the game. (Perine), we gotta tackle him. He ran through some tackles last year, and that was the difference in the game. If anybody is familiar with him it’s us. We have the same guys this year that we had last, the same scheme, the same coordinator, the same coaches. It won’t take much from me to tell those guys what they are facing. They know good and well it’s going to take more than one person to get him on the ground.”
On the flip side, Holgorsen explained the true concept of balance within his offense. The best parts of balance, the coach said, aren’t merely yardage or play calls. It’s about being able to execute in both phases pending what defenses show. West Virginia has challenged both underneath and vertically in the passing game depending upon opposing alignments, and it’s gotten the ground game going as needed when the safeties have played back. The Mountaineers have passed 95 times, completing 66, this season for 969 yards and rushed 144 times for 661 yards.
“We strive for being as balanced as we can,” Holgorsen said. “That’s not yardage or output or amount of plays we throw it or run it. It’s more about the ability to take what the defense is giving you. If they’re attacking the box, you better be able to throw it and if they have guys over the top, you better be able to run it. And I feel like we do. We have some guys who can run it, we have a quarterback, and we have guys who can win down the field.”
Kickoff is at 11 a.m. central time, which Holgorsen says he prefers on the road, so the team can get back home at a more reasonable hour. WVU’s Oct. 10 game with Oklahoma State was announced Monday as being one with an enacted six-day window by Fox. The game will either be 3:30 p.m. on ABC/ESPN, 7 p.m. on ABC/ESPN or 7 p.m. on Fox.