This measuring stick measured the Mountaineers just right. Oklahoma lambasted WVU on punt return to control field position. The Sooner secondary spun circles around Daryl Worley and Terrell Chestnut. And between its initial landslide of penalties, OU’s defense kept WVU in a seemingly permanent uphill position, controlling the run and limiting the pass enough that the contest was already a three-score game by the break.
As for the Mountaineers, trying to prove themselves more than the Big 12’s perennial little engine that might, they seemed overwhelmed early with the situation. And that was perhaps the most discouraging aspect. West Virginia for years made its money as the underdog, relishing the role and embracing the challenge. But whether it was circumstances, opponent, or the sheer desire placed upon this game as a proving ground, WVU seemed to drown beneath the mass of tradition and talent that is Oklahoma.
The Sooners rolled up 296 yards of first half offense, and 427 overall, while building a 24-7 lead aided by multiple layers of issues for the Mountaineers. The receivers ran open through the midst of the odd stack, somewhat oddly unpolished on the back end. Baker Mayfield picked up 21.2 yards per completion, and seemed completely at ease in the pocket.
Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said some of the problems were the result of pressure that didn’t get home quickly enough – such as the double move for a score. Others were simply poor coverage. The defense, Gibson said, was left wanting in various areas, none of which glaring, all of which aiding in the loss.
The offense? It had managed only 3.5 yards per snap in the first half, and it was then that the game’s foundation was laid. The average starting field position for WVU was the 15-yard line, the 10.4-yard line if the kickoff touchbacks are disregarded. The Mountaineers gave up a quarter of the field – 24 yards – on two poor punt return fielding decisions alone, the very definition of handcuffing an offense. Head coach Dana Holgorsen admitted portions of the playbook were closed, like the receiver screens and some slow-developing plays, because of field positioning.
It’s true WVU cashed in a couple get out of jail free cards via Oklahoma penalties. But much of it the offensive woes were self-inflicted, like Skyler Howard’s regression to his formerly antsy self. There was too much zip and not enough touch on early passes. The footwork and stride on throws was off, the release point a touch high, causing the ball to sail. Howard also missed a pair of open receivers for what seemed at the time just hints of internal combustion which would be rectified.
But those wisps snowballed into a stalled offense that was less Lamborghini and more McCormick Farmall, the breadbasket staple able to accomplish general tasks, but nothing specifically well. The Mountaineers needed 50 yards on penalties to score their first touchdown, being otherwise shutout through the first 35 minutes of play as Oklahoma built a 24-7 lead.
WVU neither ran nor passed with conviction. The offensive line play is aptly described as spotty, and perhaps best penned as badly lacking at the left tackle slot. Indeed, Yodny Cajuste is in a growth period, and that growth period is reaching adolescence, a time of major pain. Adam Pankey was benched in the second half, replaced by Tony Matteo, with Kyle Bosch at the other guard slot. Clearly, Ron Crook is looking for a dependable combination, and has yet to locate such.
There was the aforementioned lack of crispness on defense, and clear hesitation and unsureness on special teams. Unfortunately, it took a regrouping effort before West Virginia started to settle into comfortable play. And here’s the gist of the entire sordid affair – that cannot happen. These games can no longer be too big for this program if it wishes to truly compete at the upper echelon of the Big 12.
Holgorsen addressed it early this week, noting that the team must stop merely talking about pulling upsets, or getting close to the top shelf of the league, but to actually close as well. Oklahoma’s 50-49 and 16-7 wins showed the ability to routinely remain in games. And even last season, the Mountaineers were close, but close is beginning to be the rule rather than the exception.
Sure, it was a nice to rally within 27-24. The bootleg call was beautiful. The mastery of OU’s line on West Virginia’s second drive of the latter half was fantastic. The defensive playmaking and ability to limit the run and gave the offense a fighting chance is to be commended.
But until West Virginia turns itself from horseshoes and hand grenades into death and taxes – and maybe a defeat to Oklahoma – it will never move past its current ceiling as a second-tier program in a first-rate conference.