West Virginia's Front Five Keys An Attack Which Ranks In The Top 10 In Total Offense

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The challenge for West Virginia's offensive line are obvious. The answers, however much the same as the last few weeks, might come harder in this test.

Since head coach Mike Gundy took over the program a dozen years ago, Oklahoma State has continued to stockpile solid defensive edge rushers and an interior line which has shown the ability to create near constant pressure on opposing backfields and disrupt passing games. It's similar to what West Virginia faced against Texas Christian in facing a four-down front, with the caveat that this unit continually faces the same style of offense which the Mountaineers run. OSU has seen many of the looks WVU will present, and often has very similar signals for such.

The mirror image isn't as striking as that of Texas Tech up until the last two seasons, but it's still a defense which understands the intricacies of rushing out of the spread, and one which has managed even in down years to keep the Cowboys close enough to win 17 of their last 22 games. The better ideals of nature might surmise that the two programs are the closest brothers in the Big 12, both having been built slowly but steadily via a spread system that demands physical play from both sides while having the ability to change pace frequently.

The Cowboys (5-2, 3-1) sit solidly in fourth place in the conference, and possess a talented overall squad capable of playing with the best of college football while at the same time being subject to downfalls. OSU's defensive front - led by former Kansas State defensive run game coordinator Jo Bob Clements - has had mixed results in the run game this year. Clements, a colleague of WVU offensive coordinator Joe Wickline, helped Oklahoma State rank sixth in the nation in sacks per game and 18th nationally in tackles for loss last year while now trying to jell a front that has 13.5 TFLs this season. The Cowboys are attempting to bring along a pair of sophomores on the ends in Jarrell Owens (6-3, 270 lbs.) and Cole Watershield (6-5, 255 lbs.), which will be imperative in beginning to turn the proverbial defensive tide.

Owens has 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, with a 37-inch vertical which exceeds every other non-skill position talent on the roster. Watershield set career highs in tackles, TFLs and sacks in the win nonconference over Pitt and has grown more than 40 pounds in his three seasons in the OSU weight program. The two don't have the dynamic pass rush abilities of some other ends WVU has faced, but make a stout combination against both the run and pass that strikes the perfect balances in a league like the Big 12.

"They like to twist a lot," WVU left tackle Adam Pankey said. "I see a lot of twist on film. They bring a lot of blitzes, so they like to heat up the backfield and get it out of your hands quickly. We will have answers for that and we will work towards that. They always have big, physical guys and they recruit well. We expect a lot of the same."

Oklahoma State has thus far struggled versus the run, ranking seventh in the Big 12 at 181.6 yards per game against West Virginia's 206.5 yards per outing on the ground. The Cowboys held overwhelmed foes Southeast Louisiana (97 yards) and Central Michigan (50 yards), holding both below the century mark, but struggled against Texas (329), Pitt (290) and Kansas (204). OSU has also given up more than 235 passing yards in every game this season outside of Southeast Louisiana, surrendering numbers like 387 yards to Baylor, and perhaps worse, 368 to Central Michigan. Their answer, as Pankey noted, was pressure. That makes this a battle of mindset versus match-up to see whether WVU's front five - particularly the tackles - can hold off Owens and Watershield long enough to give Skyler Howard and the wideouts time to exploit coverage via the series of intermediate, deep and underneath routes to get close to their typical point and yardage production. 

"They like to twist a lot," Pankey said. "I see a lot of twist on film. They bring a lot of blitzes, so they like to heat up the backfield and get it out of your hands quickly. We will have answers for that and we will work towards that. They always have big, physical guys and they recruit well. We expect a lot of the same."

Those averages for West Virginia, the 33 points and 510 total yards of offense (303.5 passing and 206.5 rushing), will largely come down to line play. That's unlike last week, when the best aspects of Texas Christians's defense were the secondary and its ability to play man coverage and match routes. This one reverts to the likes of BYU, when winning the line of scrimmage largely trumps all. This also expects to be a test in which the Mountaineers must run the ball effectively in the red zone, where a defense like OSU tightens.

"Like most of us they get the best personnel they can get and then they fit it into what they do," Wickline said. "They are four-down, and they have the ability to go three down. They play man coverage and they will play tight on you and then they'll loosen up and they will disguise. They pressure, they bring some things from different areas. Some of it is universal, but a lot of it is that they do a nice job they keep all the gaps covered and they get in their gap and make it tough on you."

As average as the Cowboys are overall, allowing 448.7 yards per game (104th in the NCAA), including 267.1 passing (106) and 181.6 rushing (82nd), they are respectable in scoring defense at 27.4 points per game (64), largely because they've gotten off the field on third down and rank 21st in red zone defense.

"You look back last year and you look some this year," Wickline said of the scout for Oklahoma State. "Those guys on defense are really good, much like our guys. They are some of the best in the business and they make it tough on you. They are top ranked in the score zone or red zone, they are top ranked in third down and the are obviously top ranked in taking the ball away. So we got our hands full. They have a bunch of good players, athletic, sharp guys and they know the schemes. All of them concern me a whole lot. Scoring in the red zone and turnovers, all of that goes hand-in-hand to finish drives."

Take a listen as Wickline, above, dissects Oklahoma State's defensive scheme, while Pankey, below, explains his approach to again having to man the tackle slot after being slid outside from guard following the season-ending ACL tear of Yodny Cajuste.

"We had that shuffle in the line as everybody knows, but everybody believes in each other and there's good communication with each other," Pankey said. "Every week we are trying to get better. There are always things, and we see that on film and try to get better. I'm out there trying to give our team the best chance to win week in an week out. I think that's what all the guys do.

"I'm a bit more experienced (at tackle). I have got a bit more coaching out there from coach Joe. He works specifically with tackles so I get a lot of extra work and reps with him that I think definitely benefits. Different sets, how we want to work our hands depending on who we are playing - if they swipe hands, if they are trying to get your outside, if they want to come inside. It depends upon the week and who we are playing."


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