"It's the best defense we have played all year," offensive tackle Ryan Stanchek said. "They are very strong up front, and No. 33, the defensive end, he's tough, No. 96 is a stud and No. 40, a linebacker, he's really tough, too. Talent-wise it's the best we have faced. It will be a test for our offensive line."
Stanchek is referencing All-American end Auston English, tackle DeMarcus Granger and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. The threesome is the heart of a front seven considered among the finest in the nation. English, a 6-3, 252-pound sophomore, leads the Sooners in sacks with 9.5 and tackles for loss at 13. The 9.5 sacks are 14th-best all-time in OU history, and just 0.5 off the best in the nine-year Bob Stoops era. Granger (6-2, 307 lbs.), out of powerhouse Kimball High in Dallas, was rated the No. 1 tackle prospect in the nation and the No. 5 player in Texas by Scout.com in 2004. The prep All-American is third on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss. His combination of speed (sub-4.9 40) and range via wingspan makes him a difficult match-up for nearly any lineman. Lofton is a consensus All-American and the AP Big XII Defensive Player of the Year. The 6-0, 235-pound junior tallied a school-record eight games with 10-plus tackles and has 142 tackles overall, the best at OU in 10 years.
"And those guys move around," Stanchek said. "They are huge and physical and tough. I can't give them enough credit. It's hard to compare, but those guys remind me of Mississippi State. They are quick and strong. They come at you from all angles. It's a bit of everything. You never know what they will throw at you."
The three are the best on a unit with enough sheer size – OU averages 6-3 and 275 pounds up front – and quickness to make plays around the ball. But Oklahoma (11-2) also employs looks against which No. 9 West Virginia (10-2) has had success. The Mountaineers have rushed for 353 (Maryland), 254 (Rutgers), 295 (Cincinnati) and 262 (Mississippi State) yards against base power defenses. That's an average of 291 yards per outing versus foes most resembling that of OU. Pitt also uses a base 4-3, and was able to hold WVU to just 104 yards on 41 carries, though offensive coordinator Calvin Magee claims that was more West Virginia's inability to do much of anything correctly than Pitt's raw talent and execution.
That begs multiple questions: How will West Virginia perform? Can the Mountaineers use their spread look to confuse the Sooners and exploit seams vertically? And, with OU missing a pair of secondary players, will interim head coach Bill Stewart indeed turn the passing game loose as he has threatened to do? If WVU loosens up Oklahoma by oiling up it's largely unused, though viable, passing game, tailback Steve Slaton should shake loose for some runs resembling those he had versus Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, when he set the bowl mark for rushing with 204 yards.
Stanchek and West Virginia expect OU to defense the spread similarly to teams that have had success against it in the past. Oklahoma won't abandon its ideals – stopping the run, getting pressure on the ball and slowing big passing plays – but will also take a cue from other teams by crashing the outside, stuffing eight-plus players into the box and using its strength and speed to gain solid angles. West Virginia must counteract that with increased offensive ingenuity, along with the all-encompassing catchphrase of better execution.
"We go into every game with certain plays that we want to run," Magee said. "We don't really operate (with trick plays). If you watch us, we don't use gadgets. We have to get out and get our run game going."
That's what Boise State claimed last year as well before using three plays, a hook and lateral, a half back pass and a fake throw to the outside with a behind-the-back misdirection handoff, to beat OU in the Fiesta Bowl. And with Stewart, Magee and quarterbacks coach Rod Smith all having a partial say in play calling, West Virginia is claiming it "won't have any bullets left in the gun," according to Stewart, when the game is over. The contest will serve as a bit of a showcase for the offense staff and Magee, who said he second-guessed himself after the Pitt game. They will get a chance to run the spread offense without the lording presence of Rodriguez, who often was ultra-conservative in his play calling and continually resorted to plays teams had slowed, or stopped altogether.
"We did a lot of things wrong as coaches, and we didn't execute things we should have executed," Magee said. "It happened at the wrong time. Just like we ask the kids to bounce back, we should bounce back as well. We want to spread (Oklahoma) out sideline-to-sideline but not be finesse. We want to play power football and come downhill at you. The Georgia Tech defense was like that with the speed. But we have some things. We have faced similar teams. We have some things for each team we play.
"You have time. You can adjust. What you don't want to do is adjust too much and get away from some of the things you have done well. You can probably zero in more on things you did well during the season and work more on that. The biggest problem with bowl prep can be doing too much. We want to use what works, and add some things for each team."