WVU, seemingly limited when comparing offenses and defenses, can keep itself out of a what's potentially a major hole in terms of on-paper battles by slowing OU's trio of kickoff returners. Stewart, as special teams coordinator, faces an Oklahoma team that leads the nation in kickoff returns, but isn't exceptional at anything else. The No. 4 Sooners (11-2) average 27.6 yards per run back on 47 attempts. No. 9 WVU (10-2) is 30th in the NCAA in coverage, limiting teams to an average of 19.8 yards on 30 tries, making this the best overall special teams battle.
Juaquin Iglesias and Allen Patrick have combined for the vast majority of run backs. Iglesias, an all-Big XII receiver, has flashed a combination of shiftiness and speed, while Patrick is a more north-south runner with a burst. At 6-1 and 201 pounds and 6-1 and 190, respectively, both have the ability to exploit any open seams. Oklahoma's biggest threat, however, has been freshman DeMarco Murray. A solid prep running back out of Las Vegas, Murray splashed onto the scene in practices as a redshirt last season before being inserted early in 2007. He responded with touchdown returns of 91 and 81 yards, respectively, against Baylor and Tulsa, the latter coming on just his second collegiate runback.
The trio has returns of more than 35 yards this season, helping Oklahoma to 15 returns covering 30-plus yards. All five players to return a kickoff are averaging at least 24 yards, and, in head coach Bob Stoops' nine years, have eight returns for scores and 25 special teams touchdowns overall. Inglesias ranks 13th in the NCAA with a 28.7-yard average on returns, and Murray would be higher with more opportunities. Teams have kicked away from the back, and because Oklahoma has allowed just 18.2 points per game on average, the chances have been few.
"Skill positions and all the way through it is the best team we played all year (and) I don't think that's the strongest point of their game plan," said WVU cornerback and punt returner Vaughn Rivers. "I thought they were decent (on special teams), but their offense and defense were real strong."
Oklahoma ranks 69th in opponent returns (21.8 yards), 76th in punt returns (7.8 yards) and 66th in opponent punt returns (9.1 yards). It is third in the Big XII in punt yardage at 42.5, by far the best marks in any other category. Sooner kicker Garrett Hartley has hit 10 of 12 field goals, but OU missed seven extra points in 76 tries. It mixed punters until late in the season, when Mike Knall took over the job. He averaged 49.5 yards in the Big XII title game.
West Virginia is 30th in opponent returns (19.8 yards), 30th in punt return (11.2 yards), and 11th in opponent punt returns (5.5 yards). Pat McAfee has hit 11 of 15 field goals; he missed two in the loss to Pitt and three in a row after making 11 consecutive following a 22-yard miss at Maryland.
"We have to work on keeping coverage lanes," long snapper Adam Hughes said. "Don't get out of them. That's a big thing in bottling up a big returner. You want to make sure you are in the right position. With me, I go right to the face of the defender. Guys are taking a lot of pride in what they are doing right now. A lot of (OU's success) is that they have such great athletes, tremendous players. Another thing is that they put in as much time as we do, probably."
Oklahoma has scored a special teams touchdown in 19 of its last 64 regular season games. The Sooners have 14 punt returns for a score under Stoops, and have blocked 20 kicks. West Virginia has one blocked kick this season, by Charles Pugh versus Syracuse.
"They are very versatile in everything they do," WVU receiver and Dorrell Jalloh. "If we can just execute – and that's something we don't do all the time – then we will be ok. There are certain areas where you might see weaknesses, but where they are weak somewhere, they are stronger in others. We just have to play our game."