Both defenses are dealing with a major injury while facing explosive opponents. How will they cope?

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Here’s a look at our Scout-Ing report for No. 21 Oklahoma State, including how both teams deal with key defensive injuries and some unique match-ups on both sides.

 

In a departure from our typical analysis, we’ll do a quick self-scout of West Virginia, and the best way for the Mountaineers to proceed following the season- and career-ending injury to Karl Joseph before delving deeper into OSU. First, the bandit safety – which plays much like a typical strong safety in WVU’s odd stack set – is a jack-of-all-trades, and Joseph had mastered many. After a couple seasons with poor pursuit angles, Joseph rectified that issue and this season was on track to garner yet another All-American and All-Big 12 honor.

The senior leads the nation in interceptions with five, and is the only Mountaineer to start at bandit since the program moved to the new conference three-plus seasons ago. Joseph had 42 career starts, which accounted for every game of his career beginning as a true freshman. The real shame is that Joseph has played four games, or 33 percent of the Mountaineers’ season. If he would have suffered the injury one game earlier, he would have remained eligible for a medical redshirt. As it is, the foundation of West Virginia’s transition into its new home will never play collegiately again.

That leaves an obvious hole at the position, and there have been multiple discussions as to how to proceed. The view from here is this: WVU should not shuffle multiple players on its back end. Keep Daryl Worley and Terrell Chestnut at the corners, leave Dravon Askew-Henry at his free slot, and simply elevate the next player up, be that Jarrod Harper or Jeremy Tyler. A similar situation occurred with the program before the national championship game in 1989. WVU free safety Darrell Whitmore was lost weeks before the game with an injury, and the coaching staff moved multiple players around in an effort to cover. That didn’t work, Notre Dame rolling up more than 200 yards passing and running in a 34-21 win.

Harper has shown signs of very high quality play and understanding, and adds more size at 6-1, 211 pounds. The Frostburg, Md. native is listed as the back-up, but Tyler, the reserve behind K.J. Dillon at spur, would be another prime candidate with similar size to Joseph at 5-11, 206 pounds. Neither is a physical as Joseph, nor with the exceptional experience. Harper, though, has played in 29 career games, Tyler with 25, and as juniors both have had the time to build the frame and strength needed to compete. Sure, there will be a drop off. But to say West Virginia’s defense, with its depth from linebacker through the secondary, can’t perform at a high level because of this loss is in error.

Sometimes, in fact, teammates coalesce around such an injury and the new sum of the parts becomes greater than the previous whole. The first test will, at the vert least, offer some familiarity for the defense. Oklahoma State, now 5-0 after narrow league wins over Texas and Kansas State, has won seven straight dating to last year, but is still developing on both sides. The Cowboys gained an elevated preseason ranking thanks to the punt return version of a Hail Mary, then a bowl win over a middling Washington team in the Cactus Bowl. Suddenly, the ‘Pokes were no longer a mid-level Big 12 team, but had jumped a West Virginia team that beat it the previous two seasons in the league preseason poll.

Hogwash. OSU is a building team, and it has shown progress over the last two weeks. But the Cowboys aren’t as skilled or as honed across the board as is West Virginia. One of the scores against Kansas State was nothing more than missed tackles, and Mike Gundy’s crew begged Texas to stay in the game, and then had the win gift wrapped when the UT punter took a snap off the facemask, which allowed Ben Grogan – who has played in Stillwater since the Punic Wars – to kick the game winner as the latest to rub Charlie Strong’s nose in it while the rubbin’ is good.

The Cowboys have solid offensive ability. Mason Rudolph is a stout, 6-4, 220-pound signal caller with a 7-1 record as a starter, four of those wins on the road. The sophomore has never thrown for less than 260 yards; he ranks sixth in the NCAA in passing yards (1,674), and has laid claim to the starting spot over J.W. Walsh.

But the surrounding cast hasn’t jelled as effectively as Gundy would like. There are still too many drops, too many missed holes, and at times spotty run blocking. OSU starts a former walk-on at center – though a similar situation obviously didn’t affect Oklahoma at quarterback last week – along with another who shuffled around multiple positions all of last season and yet another lineman who transferred from UAB when it disbanded the program.

They are, much like the Mountaineers, still trying to find consistency. It’ll be interesting to watch the trench battle with West Virginia’s defense, which itself tried different combinations against Oklahoma last week, sliding Kyle Rose out to tackle and allowing Darrien Howard to play nose. WVU should have a slight edge here, and if WVU can tackle well in space – OSU uses the same wide spreads along the line, and likes to shake the backs loose in spread formations – it can control the run.

Both Raymond Taylor, a former K-State signee, and junior college transfer Chris Carson have been limited by far lesser defenses than West Virginia’s, which matches up against Gundy’s spread quite well. Taylor managed just 35 yards on nine carries and a score last week, and unless Rudolph and the lengthy receivers can make plays downfield, there isn’t likely to be much room near the box. Keep an eye on the 6-4 Marcell Ateman, who dominated KSU late in the game with what looked like almost passe’ efforts on deep throws late. Add in David Glidden, who leads the team in all-purpose and receiving yards and is fifth nationally in 20-plus yard plays, and this will be just the latest of challenges for Worley and Chestnut, who will look to bounce back a bit after a tough time dealing with OU’s skill.

It seems like Oklahoma State might almost have to fool West Virginia if it can’t make the plays down the field with Ateman. The Cowboys have struggled on initial downs this season, much like WVU did last game, but then made up for it by ranking 13th in the nation in third down conversion percentage.

Oklahoma State came up with a keen variation on West Virginia’s touch pass off the jet sweep made famous by Tavon Austin in the Orange Bowl. Instead of flipping the ball forward to the wideout – thanks Bob Stitt, now the head coach of Montana and formerly of the Colorado School of the Mines (Go Orediggers!) – the Cowboys have the back cut behind the QB, who then flips it to him. The hindrance is the play is a bit slower to develop. The benefit, and pay attention here, is that the back/wideout can throw off the play, as the initial pass is backwards. That backfired against Kansas State when a defensive end beat the tackle off the edge and slapped the pass away, causing a loose ball that was recovered deep in OSU territory; it eventually led to a K-State score and a 28-13 second quarter lead.

Still, the play calls by Gundy rival that of Holgorsen, with the coaches using screen, end arounds, power and empty formations and any form of trickery they can muster in what were essentially mirror images for a while, before Holgorsen moved from 54 percent pass in his first Big 12 season to 36 percent pass this year.

On defense, Oklahoma State gave up three consecutive scoring drives to K-State’s back-up quarterback Cody Cook over the first 20 minutes of the game. Cook made plays on the ground, in the air and while throwing on the move to put up 21 quick points. Cook made excellent decisions and was very patient in the rushing game on keepers, something West Virginia should be able to do with Skyler Howard even though KSU’s backs often led in the QB draw. That’s not WVU’s style, as Dana Holgorsen prefers to run the draw out of the five wide look in an empty backfield.

The defensive front, noted for anchoring Oklahoma State’s national-best 22 sacks, 4.4 per game, is a significant threat. Kansas State, a greater power team that often uses tight ends and fullbacks, was set-up to protect better than West Virginia will be, and this match-up could blow up the Mountaineer offense as Oklahoma did at times. Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean are the best duo in the conference, with Ogbah earning All-Big 12 honors last season, and preseason recognition this year. The junior already has 6.5 sacks, and that’s allowed OSU to lead the nation in tackles for loss.

Watch the back and who West Virginia plays at the tackle slots. Does it push Adam Pankey into the left side, using Kyle Bosch and Tony Matteo at guards, or does Yodney Cajuste retake his starting position. And in either case, do the Mountaineers keep a back in for protection? Do they utilize some screens, which we haven’t seen as much of this season outside of the perimeter, to slow down the ends, and they focus the run game on exploiting the middle and getting Wendell Smallwood to hit a seam and go, ignoring the of tackle options. Skyler Howard’s mobility will again be an asset, and the bet here is that West Virginia keeps him more comfortable and stays on pace in terms of not getting behind the chains far better than it did versus the Sooners. The Mountaineers must have better field position, though base mathematics, and some punt return execution, indicate that’s more likely than not.

Kansas State controlled the OSU line early, and I’d look for West Virginia to again find success running the ball. The Pokes have been solid against the run, but haven’t faced a team that executed it as well as West Virginia, even having already played Texas and Kansas State. Coordinator Glenn Spencer will occasionally stand all 11 players up in passing situations in an effort to disguise coverage and blitz package (WVU does the same), and his 4-3 base morphs often into an odd front and even  3-3 with a nickel.

Besides the ends, middle linebacker Ryan Simmons and strong safety Tre Flowers were keys against the Mountaineers in limiting the interior run production and defending the midrange pass. But both have been nagged by injuries, and Simmons is now out for the season with a knee injury. That elevates Chad Whitener to the starting spot. Like with Joseph, there’s a drop in experience and proven production, but Whitener, a transfer from Cal, played well last week in recording nine tackles, three for loss, and a pair of sacks. Flowers was in and out of the game, but has the size at 6-3, 190 pounds, and vertical to bat West Virginia’s receivers to balls.

Overall, OSU’s numbers are good as the only team nationally to rank in he top 25 in total offense and defense. The offense ranks 22nd in the nation in total yardage at 483 per game, 13th in passing, 25th in scoring (38.2 ppg); the defense is 33rd in scoring (19.2 ppg), 24th in yardage and 38th in run defense. The Cowboys are excellent in the red zone on offense, but have struggled to keep foes from converting for scores on the flip side. Both teams struggle with punt returns, but are solid in coverage and in placekicking and punting.

This really is an eerily similar style on both sides, and one likely decided by execution as much as talent. West Virginia has been a bit better in both this season, so watch which team can win the turnover battle and in the running game. Those indicators go a major way in deciding the victor. In the last decade, Oklahoma State is 50-5 when winning the turnover battle and 22-0 when not committing a turnover. OSU has won 69 of 88 games when it has outrushed the opponent under Gundy. 


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