Over the past two games, the Mountaineers have faced high scoring offenses. This week is no different, but Oklahoma State goes about it in something of a different manner than Texas Tech or TCU. That changes WVU's tactics somewhat, with job one being the prevention of deep passes and getting quarterback Mason Rudolph off the spot.
That last is one of the biggest differentiators in West Virginia's approach this week. While both Patrick Mahomes and Kenny Hill were strong runners that had to be accounted for on every play, Rudolph is primarily a pocket passer. While he does have the ability to take an open lane if it presents itself, that's not his first choice...or second, or third. He's looking downfield, and wants to get his talented group of receivers in play as often as possible. Rudolph has just 48 carries on the season., and 23 of those have been sacks, so clearly he's not a big threat to run it.
While WVU had to keep an eye out for designed runs the past couple of weeks, and keep containment and gap control even on passing plays, that's not the primary goal on Saturday. The key will be to get Rudolph moving and not let him stand comfortably in the pocket. That, as much as sacks, will be the number to track. How many times does he throw without having to move? How does that affect his throws? In those numbers will lie a good indicator as to West Virginia's defensive success.
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A battle of rushing games might also play out on the floor of Boone Pickens Stadium, where so many aerial dogfights have been conducted in recent Big 12 play. WVU has been riding its running game extensively this year, and should have a much healthier Justin Crawford available for duty alongside Rushel Shell. In the meantime, OSU freshman Justice Hill has steadily boosted his productivity all season, and now stands second nationally on the freshman rushing chart. He's also tallying 119 yards per game in conference play after topping the 100-yard mark in three of his previous four games.
WVU, while trying to get Rudolph off the spot, must also guard against draws other runs designed to use defensive aggression against itself. OSU, which has historically been good at making tackles behind the line, will also focus on getting the Mountaineers behind the chains by stopping Shell before he can get up a head of steam. The thing to watch here? Along with line of scrimmage control is the yards per carry average. OSU, which is doing everything it can to improve its run game, is still averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. WVU is averaging 4.8, and if it can maintain that gap in this contest, it will have an excellent path toward victory.
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OSU has already blocked five kicks in 2016, including three placekick attempts against Texas. West Virginia, with a different alignment up front on its placekicks (featuring two wings on the right side and none on the left) will be strongly tested up the middle by the Pokes' defensive line. They'll have to stand their ground, and Mike Molina will need to get his kicks up quickly, to avoid adding to State's total.
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Turnovers gained, and turnover margin, tend to be cyclical things. There's more than a dash of luck involved in the bounce of the ball as it pertains to fumble recoveries. Hits that result in fumbles are also random – just an inch difference in the point of contact can make the difference between a routine tackle and the ball popping out.
With that in mind, it's difficult for teams to consistently be in the top tier of turnover margin. Doing so requires an extended run of fortuitous bounces, and also an offense that protects the ball well. Somehow, OSU has kept its place near the top of this statistical category in most recent years, and the results have been a big factor in the Cowboys' success. OSU is third nationally with 191 turnovers forced in the last seven seasons.
So far this year, OSU again leads the league in turnover margin (+1 per game), as well as turnovers forced (16). Even more importantly, it holds an 89-40 lead in points off turnovers, and has scored twice directly on those plays. That's another area of importance for the Pokes – over that same seven-year span, they are second nationally with 39 non-offensive touchdowns.
For WVU, the job is clear – protect the ball at all costs. The Cowboys simply thrive on extra possessions and non-traditional scores, and in a game as tight as this one is expected to be, one such TD could make all the difference.
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West Virginia's 34-10 thumping of the Cowboys in normally rowdy T. Boone Pickens Stadium in 2014 stands above the other Mountaineer wins in the series to grab out nomination for best win over the week's opponent. The victory, in which WVU showed the beginning signs of the defensive chops that characterize coordinator Tony Gibson's unit, capped a four-game October winning streak and helped push the Mountaineers to bowl eligibility.
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OSU head coach Mike Gundy will be gunning for his 100th win at his alma mater. He has averaged 8.5 wins per season for the Cowboys, and has suffered just one losing season (his first, in 2005) while at the controls.