There are significant mirroring images as West Virginia plays at Oklahoma. How do the Mountaineers find and exploit the proper match-ups?

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia will face arguably its most gritty quarterback of the season, one with a dogged determination that has kept Oklahoma’s offense supplied with confidence long after it should have wilted.

When the Mountaineer defense looks across the line of scrimmage at Baker Mayfield, what it sees might not physically resemble Skyler Howard, two inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter. But if a dissection of styles and approach were made, the same dogged characteristics would emerge. Spirited, tough, determined, resolute, steadfast.

Both Howard and Mayfield grew up in Texas, and have that quarterbacking conviction to their game that elevates their play far above the raw physical abilities. Both extend plays, fit passes into tight windows, and showcase a hardy resiliency that enables their teams to do the same. When Oklahoma should have been on the ropes at Tennessee, down 14 in the fourth quarter against the largest crowd the program ever played against, it was Mayfield that completed 12 of his final 19 passes after starting 7-of-20. He scrambled, he made plays with his feet and arm. And he’s the primary reason, along with a stalwart run defense, that the Sooners remain unbeaten and ranked in the top 15.

So how does West Virginia gain an edge on a player intending to find any he can grasp? First, as we reviewed earlier this week, the odd stack defense should help. Mayfield hasn’t seen it often, and even two weeks of prep doesn’t equal real time experience in diagnosing the set and getting an offense in the right call. The lack of seeing the 3-3-5, and the ability to disguise what WVU wants to do, might be the single biggest advantage the Mountaineers have. 

Tony Gibson both dialed up the pressure against Maryland, and held it back. He brought linebackers off the edge and up the middle, ignored backs out in the flats in favor of additional numbers in the blitz package and generally mixed up the looks that, combined with poor quarterbacking and far less talent, Maryland registered five interceptions, and got away from its ground game far too early. This is an area West Virginia can have success again. Oklahoma had zero flow in the opening two quarters against the Vols, and never truly established Samaje Perine, who totaled just 78 yards on 23 carries.

West Virginia, via its myriad of angles and its experienced secondary play, are going to have to bring pocket pressure and make Mayfield move to an extent. Gibson is likely to trust his corners on the outside, and they’re going to have to respond and be able to at least stalemate the match-ups against Sterling Shepard, Dede Westbrook and others. That will allow the Mountaineers to bring a safety down, again at times, to aid in the run game and keep Perine more in check.

The back rushed for 242 yards in OU’s win last season, much of that coming over the weakside of the defense after feigning strongside rush. WVU claims it has figured out a counter to that, likely simply sliding some backers and playing more honest overall, but it’ll be interesting early to watch that match-up and see if WVU can control Oklahoma’s push and at least keep the line of scrimmage, and thus typical initial contact, neutralized.

West Virginia has been excellent in clogging the middle against its first three foes, and it could do it again. Oklahoma’s line hasn’t been as impressive this season as expected, and because of the adjustments to new coordinator Lincoln Riley's scheme – which is more closely aligned with Dana Holgorsen and some of the air raid characteristics than what OU ran for the past few seasons – it hasn’t gotten the drive blocking expected.

More than anything, Oklahoma will look to exploit numbers, just as WVU does with its offense. The beauty of the stack is that Gibson can hide those numerics somewhat, and make Mayfield and Riley make educated guesses as opposed to surefire decisions. The left side of the line is the weaker point of now, so check to see if the Mountaineers focus the run game defense on the right, where Oklahoma has a pair of 308-plus pound redshirt seniors.

What Oklahoma really did better than Tennessee, at least in the second half, was win one on one match-ups. The OU receivers started beating the DBs, Mayfield beat the Volunteer ends on a few plays and then was able to scramble and buy time enough for a bit of freelancing to develop, and that’s where Oklahoma excelled. It’s initial play executions weren’t great, and didn’t fool many. It was when it broke down that UT was hurt. Watch the play for West Virginia, and see if the Mountaineers have diagnosed the set and defend the initial phase correctly. Then, if it breaks down, does WVU adjust accordingly and become able to adapt to the skill and raw talent level of the Sooners, who for years were the program best recruiting Texas, though that’s now gone to A&M.

Watching Mayfield and OU is eerily similar to West Virginia. There’s zone read, iso, power, mesh concepts, the Y cross, screens attacking the boundary and so forth, along with the ability to change quickly at the line. The keys for WVU, then, are the basics of disguise and execution, coupled with the ability to tackle in space and win one-on-one match-ups. There really isn’t a certain aspect, such as shutting down the run game, that could wilt this offense like it did Maryland or Georgia Southern. It’s too multiple, with too many options to go away from areas where it has a disadvantage. This is more make-a-play football. I’m going to call one thing, you adjust to it, I adjust back and then we see who wins that round. Piece together the most rounds and avoid a knockout, and you win the match.

The same is true on the other side. Oklahoma is playing a couple hybrid players, though in a more traditional sense, much like WVU’s spur and bandit. The Sooners operate with three down linemen, with a fourth player, Eric Striker, serving as an end/rush ‘backer. That leaves a pair of what are labeled inside linebackers, and two corners, a free safety, a strong safety and the nickel back.

The problem for the Sooners is that they haven’t had the ability to threaten with other players in the blitz game to free Striker for one-on-ones, or protect enough behind him in the pass game when he manned the strongside ‘backer slot. What was left was a fairly base defense in zone, which opened segments of the run game for spread teams and left open green areas via the pass. Check and see where OU is stationing Striker, and then, as a corollary, how the Sooners are playing their corners.

Do they trust them enough against WVU’s speed to play near the line of scrimmage while Striker is at linebacker, not getting a pass rush? Probably not. More likely they play the corners back, and use Striker more to take away the run while providing some help with safeties.

On downs where Striker moves to rush end, and Oklahoma resembles more of a 4-2-5 – something the Sooners have done more this season – the defense seems to be better suited against the spreads. Striker can gain some one-one-ones on the outside against Yodny Cajuste with a three technique defensive tackle occupying the guard.

That might force West Virginia, as it had to do last season, to keep a back in for pass protection, so keep an eye on this match-up. Cajuste’s best feature is his wingspan and pass pro sets, and this is key for both teams. Skyler Howard’s mobility will also factor, but Cajuste has to win his share. Watch to see if WVU can exploit the exterior upfield push and slip the back through the vacated area, as it did against Maryland.

The Mountaineers, much like Oklahoma, are going to try and find the best numbers game and match-ups and exploit those. Watch and see how much Holgorsen trusts Cajuste and how much Mike Stoops trusts his corners to handle the speed of Shelton Gibson and Jovon Durante. I can’t see Stoops using a cover zero, so that’ll move a safety back, if not two, and bring the nickel in on one of the slots, where he can also be effective in stopping the running game.

Oklahoma can also split safety assignments on the back end, leaving a single over the top for help and sliding the other down into the box to become more aggressive against the run and intermediate routes. That also eases the run-pass burden on the mike linebacker, but can expose one side of the field or both to the outside vertical threat. Remember, the spread is about creating space, forcing a defense to cover all three levels (short, medium and deep), finding one-on-ones and making the correct choice after figuring out which choice the defense has made.

Aside from the Striker-Cajuste and outside receivers-corner match, the red zone rushing game will be a key. Can WVU move a solid front enough to score when the real estate tightens? Or does Oklahoma’s physicality show itself against a line still piecing potions together? WVU was better with the run against Maryland, even inside the five yard line, while its pass protection was a bit worse than it had been, though that’s because of better talent as well. It’ll again be a give and take of numbers, though this game should reveal much more than the previous three about both teams. Both defenses, I think, have an advantage in this game more than most people think, and one could easily argue that this isn’t a contest that gets into the 40s, and maybe not even the mid-30s for the winner.

And finally, within the special teams game, both teams look fairly clean. I’d keep an eye on Josh Lambert's placekicks to see if they retain the pop off the foot that we’ve become used to, and Nick O'Toole is going to again be key on punts and kickoffs. If West Virginia can get another even contest, it has to be relatively pleased because of Austin Seibert, the OU all-everything kicker who has hit all four field goals, made all 16 PATs and averaged 45.8 yards per punt.

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