After allowing another three sacks last week against Oklahoma State, West Virginia’s offensive line will be tested yet again this Saturday when it deals with a talented duo of defensive linemen from No. 2 Baylor in Waco, Tex.
Through five games, West Virginia has given up 17 sacks for a league-worst 137 yards. Offensive line coach Ron Crook said his group is aware of the issues it has had through the first half of the season, and started to turn things around during WVU’s second half comeback against Oklahoma State.
“I think we all see that we have some issues that have to be corrected," Crook said. We went out and played a really good second half. We felt that the second quarter was good, even though we started off slow offensively. We had close to 500 yards. I don’t know the exact numbers. We had close to 250 yards rushing against a pretty damn good defense."
While WVU’s offensive line has struggled at times in pass protection, the Mountaineers have excelled in run blocking this year. The West Virginia front has paved the way for Mountaineer running backs to compile 222.4 rushing yards per game, which ranks third in the Big 12.
“We feel like we can do a lot of good things offensively, but we have to continue to improve and correct mistakes, so we don’t run into those issues again,” Crook said.
Oakman, who’s 6-foot-9, 275-pound frame inspired an Internet meme sensation last season, has terrorized Big 12 ball carriers and quarterbacks in his career. He ranks in the top 10 in the Big 12 in sacks with three, and tackles for loss with 6.5. Although Oakman may garner the headlines and social media attention, the Baylor defense is anchored by its 6-foot-2, 300-pound nose guard in Billings.
“He is one of the best nose tackles in the league. He is, without no doubt," head coach Dana Holgorsen said. "He’s just tough. He’s a hard-nose, tough and powerful football player that plays every snap. "He has good quickness off the ball. He can bull rush you. He can get around you. He can get off blocks and make tackles when he’s blocked. He’s a good player.”
More than just a space filler in the middle of the defensive line, Billings causes havoc at the point of attack to att times creating double teams to at least stalemate hiss size and strength. It will be among the more imperative match-ups along the line, where WVU has new starters at guard, and often shuffles in players at the positions surrounding center Tyler Orlosky. Whether the Mountaineers can keeep the line of scrimmage even, and move Billings to desired areas, will dictate how succcessfully itd able to run between the tackles. If it can't, and thus can't as easily control pace, West Virginia wil likely have a difficult time matching the scoring pace of Baylor.
“He’s strong and explosive, has a great motor for a big guy," Crook said of Billings. "You expect to see big guys, 300-pounders, take plays off at times, and you don’t see it with him. He’s busting his butt every play, so every play is going to be a challenge. Every player is going to have a strong challenge, but again it’s what we go out and play for."
West Virginia was able to stand up to that challenge against the Bears in Morgantown last season, when the Mountaineers took down the No. 4 team in the country. The offensive line was key in the upset, both in establishing the protection of quarterback Clint Trickett and allowing the team to melt the game away on a pair of latter drives that burned clock and picked up significant first downs to slide field position just a bit as the game wound down.
“I think we went out and played physical," Crook said. "We didn’t get caught up in the game. We played our game. We continued to run the ball well throughout the course of the game. It wasn’t here and there. We ran it well. We protected our quarterback. Our guys made plays last year, bottom line. There was a lot of plays to be made, and our guys made them."
Last year is in the past, however, and a fresh test awaits the Mountaineers at noon Saturday when they play for the first time at McLane Stadium, Baylor's 45,140-seat riverside facility opened in August of last year.
“With us, it’s simply about moving forward. Our guys are doing well in the run game, and we improved in pass protection this week. We have to improve in both areas if we want to have a shot this weekend,” Crook said.