Radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning provides periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @TheSignalCaller.
It was five years ago yesterday.
October 28, 2011. The West Virginia team caravan was cruising south out of Newark International Airport down Interstate 95 behind a New Jersey State Police escort. We were a few minutes out from the New Brunswick hotel where the Mountaineers would prepare for Rutgers the following afternoon. It would prove to be a pivotal game on a snow-blown field in WVU’s last-ever stretch run in the Big East Conference.
It was on those buses that many of us first heard the landmark news that would forever change the course of West Virginia University athletics - the Big 12 Conference Board of Directors had voted unanimously to accept West Virginia as a full member.
It was scary, exciting and uncertain.
Since almost that very moment, Dana Holgorsen and his staff have recruited like craftsmen, using the high-profile Big 12 brand as their jigsaw of choice. With it, they’ve carved out five of the deepest signing classes in school history. They’ve attracted Power Five-caliber players from the high school ranks in greater numbers than ever before while plugging holes with game-ready junior college difference makers and consistently enticing a key cadre of Division 1 transfers and tenacious walk-ons. The thread bringing this eclectic group together has been a common appreciation of the Flying WV logo. The brand is important to them. All of them.
The diligence on the recruiting trail has translated into progressively more complete West Virginia rosters than the top-heavy squad that faded down the stretch in 2012. The margins on that inaugural Big 12 team were razor thin, as evidenced by the point totals West Virginia gave up in its first three conference games that year – 63, 45 and 49.
Compare that to the totals allowed by Tony Gibson’s defense in league play so far this fall – 16, 17 and 10 – and you start to appreciate how well-stocked the Mountaineer cupboard has become compared to West Virginia’s early days in the league. In point of fact, when you isolate the work done by defenses across the landscape to only those games played against Power Five competition this season, Gibson’s ‘Dawgs’ are No. 2 nationally – yielding a mere 13.5 points per contest.
“I think our recruiting and the overall aspect of how we play defense has changed over the last four years. We’ve got a defensive coordinator in Tony Gibson who is doing a good job, the staff is doing a good job and we didn’t quit recruiting a few years ago,” Holgorsen said.
“We’ve been plugging people in and getting some transfers. Those guys feel pretty good about where we’re at and we’re looking to continue to improve.”
Holgorsen’s offense, meanwhile, has settled in as a model of balance, establishing itself as one of only five in the nation averaging 300-plus passing yards per outing and more than 200 yards rushing. Moreover, the Mountaineers have strung together consecutive conference games without suffering a turnover for the first time since entering the league.
Overall, West Virginia is one of only two teams in the country to boast a top-10 offense (yardage) and a top-15 defense (scoring). Figures such as these have contributed to WVU winning 11 of its last 12 overall – the best record in the Big 12 during that span -- while jumping out to the program’s first 3-0 start in the conference.
Brick by brick this team has come together. The history of college football suggests that’s how progress is made. Not in quantum leaps, but in small, often painful, micro-steps.
Bobby Bowden, the inimitable architect of Florida State’s rise from obscurity to glory, has often suggested there are four steps to building a contender.
First you lose big; then you lose close; then you win close; and then, finally, you win big.
In the 4 ½ seasons since West Virginia transitioned into this bold new frontier known as the Big 12 Conference, we’ve seen Dana Holgorsen’s program navigate the first three of those four steps. This year, the victories have come in all shapes and sizes. The Mountaineers have fought through injuries against an SEC team (Missouri) and lethargy against an FCS team (Youngstown). They’ve staged furious comebacks (Kansas State) and they’ve fended off furious comebacks (BYU).
More recently, it seems, we’ve seen West Virginia graduate to step No. 4 in Bowden’s floor plan: Winning big. A week after dishing out Texas Tech’s worst home loss since 2011, the Mountaineers throttled TCU, 34-10, handing Gary Patterson’s Frogs their largest margin of defeat since 2008.
So now comes the critical fifth step in this process, the one that Bowden didn’t include but so deftly mastered himself.
Handling the prosperity of what you’ve built.
“You’ve got to celebrate the victories very, very short term and then you’ve got to get right back to work and worry about the next one,” Holgorsen explained. “You’re only as good as your next game. Our team understands that.”
At 6-0 for the first time in a decade, and perched in the top 10 of both major polls for the first time in four years, West Virginia makes for an inviting target. At Boone Pickens Stadium, it will face an Oklahoma State team bent on toppling a top-10 squad in Stillwater for the third time in four years and for the sixth time under Mike Gundy.
OSU was one of the Big 12’s offseason media darlings. The Pokes landed in the top three of most league projections with double-digit players earning some measure of all-conference recognition from Athlon Sports.
Last month, the No. 21 Cowboys looked the part when they blew the doors off an overmatched Southeastern Louisiana squad on opening day at The Boone. By the second quarter Gundy had pulled several starters and many OSU fans were already bracing for a visit from an improved Pitt team in two weeks.
But seven days later, Central Michigan showed up as the skunk at Oklahoma State’s garden party. Abetted by a calamitous officiating mistake, the Chippewas stunned the Cowboys on a Hail Mary miracle that never should have been.
Gundy’s squad could have imploded. It could have pointed fingers and come apart at the seams. Instead it circled the wagons and won four of its next five to enter Saturday’s match-up against West Virginia squarely in the Big 12 title hunt. At 5-2, the Cowboys know that a top-10 WVU scalp could catapult them back into the AP rankings and quickly restore some luster to their 2016 season.
No matter how you stack it, Oklahoma State is a handful. Glenn Spencer’s high-motor defense has a league–high 16 takeaways. In fact, the Cowboys have forced a turnover in every game this season and in 17 of their last 18 contests overall. Throw in the game tape and it’s easy to understand how. OSU comes at you with a toxic blend of size and hustle that includes a hulking pair of 300-pound warhorses holding down the point of attack for an active group of veteran linebackers and one of the Big 12’s most battle-tested secondary units.
The Cowboys backend is led by senior safety Jordan Sterns, a heat-seeking missile with an uncanny nose for the football. Sterns has racked up 267 tackles at OSU – the most among active Big 12 players -- including a career-high 20 takedowns against WVU in Stillwater two years ago.
"It’s the best safety bunch that we’ve went against. They have good quality corners that can run. Their backers are always in position and their front have thick kids who plug gaps and do a great job, so it’s a tough group to go against,” Holgorsen said.
The Cowboys have sacked the QB 18 times, 15.5 of which have come from their defensive line. That could be disruptive, particularly against a WVU offense that leaked a bit last week against TCU after giving up just four sacks in 182 pass attempts to start the year. But it’s nothing like the 40 sacks the Pokes unleashed last year, matching the highest total by a Big 12 defense since 2011.
It’s easy to account for the drop in production. Turbo-charged freaks of nature like Emmanuel Ogbah don’t grow on trees. The Cowboys lost Ogbah to the first round of the NFL draft in April and with him they lost 13 sacks, a total that led the Big 12 and ranked No. 2 nationally behind Penn State’s Carl Nassib. Without Ogbah leading the charge, opposing QBs have had more opportunities to push the football downfield. The numbers bear this out. Only two FBS defenses have yielded more completions of 50-plus yards this year than the seven allowed so far by Oklahoma State.
Only four quarterbacks have completed more throws of 50-plus yards this fall than Howard – and each of them has played one more game than West Virginia.
But let’s dig a little deeper.
Dating back to the start of last season (19 games), Howard has connected on 18 passes of 50 or more yards, a figure that ranks No. 2 nationally behind only Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes (20). Consider for a moment that Geno Smith – the Mountaineers all-time leader in nearly every major passing category – completed 15 throws of 50-plus yards during his entire career at West Virginia (44 games) . . . three fewer than Howard has piled up in the last season-and-a-half.
West Virginia’s penchant for the deep ball becomes even more impressive when you look at who is catching these throws. While Shelton Gibson
ranks No. 3 nationally in 50-yard grabs, he’s not alone. In fact, four different Mountaineers have hauled in at least one reception of that distance as Gibson is joined in the 50-yard catch club by Ka’Raun White, Daikiel Shorts Jr.
and Jovon Durante
On the other sideline is an Oklahoma State offense that’s been a moving target. Offensive cordinator Mike Yurcich’s unit has been unpredictable and effective, throwing for 540 yards (versus Pitt) one week and running the ball 55 times (versus Baylor) the next, along the way averaging 41 points per game to rank No. 14 nationally.
If you react to OSU’s 11th-ranked passing attack by dropping numbers into coverage, the Pokes answer with an impressive running game paced by true freshman standout Justice Hill, a three-time Big 12 Newcomer of the Week. Hill already has eclipsed the 100-yard mark three times, becoming only the third true freshman in OSU history to do so (Thurman Thomas in 1984; Andre Richardson in 1994).
Hill is a potent weapon who has given the Cowboys ground game a much needed shot in the arm, but one shortcoming that continues to afflict OSU is an inability to protect the passer. It’s an issue that has dogged the Cowboys since the departure following the 2013 season of offensive line coach Joe Wickline, who of course will be up in the booth Saturday as West Virginia’s offensive coordinator.
During Wickline’s final four seasons at Oklahoma State, the Pokes yielded the fewest sacks in the Big 12. In the two-plus seasons since Wickline’s exit from Stillwater, however, the Cowboys have allowed 95 sacks in 33 games -- the second-highest total in the league. That figure includes the five OSU gave up last week at Kansas.
Two months into the season, the Cowboys continue to work on patching those leaks with an offensive line that returned fully intact from a year ago. The good news for Oklahoma State fans is that pulling the trigger behind that veteran line is a far more advanced Mason Rudolph than the skittish sophomore who threw three picks under the lights in Morgantown last October.
Rudolph has always had the size (6’5”, 235 lbs.) and physical tools, including an arm powerful enough to spray the field and make the most of explosive targets like ESPN.com Midseason All-America James Washington and sophomore dynamo Jalen McCleskey (team-high 38 catches). But now Rudolph’s wits are catching up to his talents. Instead of learning “what” to think, he’s graduated into learning “how” to think. Since that sloppy game against Gibby’s defense last October, Rudolph has settled into a groove with 26 TD passes against just four picks. This season, he’s one of only two QBs with at least 250 pass attempts but two or fewer interceptions. Rudolph is intuitive enough to quickly spot a breakdown in coverage and gifted enough to deliver the throw necessary to make you pay for it.
For unbeaten West Virginia, this will be a grueling test in a daunting homecoming environment. On the back of a custom-striped orange and black John Deere Gator, Pistol Pete – 40-pound head and all -- will burst from the tunnel to the crowd’s roar as the OSU Paddle People whack away at the padded walls near the west end zone. At that point, anyone standing on the narrow confines of the visitor’s sidelines at Boone Pickens Stadium will know that the good guys in gold and blue better ‘cowboy up.’
A lot has happened in five years. And now – 60 months and five signing classes removed from those buses somewhere in the swamps of Jersey – the Mountaineers are Big 12 title contenders.
But even as West Virginia piles up more wins and nestles more comfortably into its new conference, one part of all this hasn’t changed . . .
Things are still scary, exciting and uncertain.
And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’ll see you at the 50.