Keys to the Game - Oklahoma

  • By Jed Drenning
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  • November 17, 2012 09:18 AM
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MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. You can read more about Mountaineer football at Jed’s website http://thesignalcaller.com. You can also follow Jed on Twitter: @TheSignalCaller

Something has to give Saturday night.

West Virginia has lost two straight at home for the first time since early in the 2003 season. Oklahoma, meanwhile, has been tagged with a reputation under Bob Stoops through the years as a team that plays uninspired football when donning its road whites. Despite a 4-0 start outside of Norman this season (and a pair of incredibly uncharacteristic home losses to Kansas State and Notre Dame), OU is 80-5 at Gaylord Family–Oklahoma Memorial Stadium with Stoops at the helm, but the Sooners have posted a much more pedestrian 66-31 mark on the road and/or at neutral venues.

As the Mountaineers and Sooners prepare to tee it up for the fifth time in history, here are five things to keep an eye on:

1.) Special Teams – ugh!
Let’s start with the weekly moment of dread, that time before each game when we look at the explosive return units of West Virginia’s latest Big 12 opponent and recoil with a Shaggy Rogers-like gulp. This week it’s Oklahoma, a team that’s accounted for two touchdowns in the return game while ranking eighth nationally in kickoff return average and fifth nationally in punt returns. What we’ve seen from the WVU special teams units in recent weeks has been a mixed bag of the promising and the appalling. For instance, against TCU we saw some good (a career long 52-yard field goal by Tyler Bitancurt; a forced fumble by Karl Joseph on a punt that was recovered by Nana Kyeremeh to set up a touchdown; and a punt return for a score by Tavon Austin); and we saw some bad (a poor exchange on a punt that resulted in a fumble return for a touchdown by TCU and a protection error that led to WVU’s potentially game-winning field goal attempt in the first overtime getting blocked). In last week’s loss to Oklahoma State, it was more of the same mixed results. The good? A 48-yard punting average (43 net) by West Virginia and a two-for-two field goal effort by Bitancurt in windy conditions. The bad? A kickoff return for a score by OSU; a fumbled kickoff by West Virginia on a squib kick; a fumbled punt by the Mountaineers on a zany hop; and an abject failure by the WVU coverage unit to down a punt inside the Oklahoma State five-yard line despite an obvious opportunity to do so. A solid performance by the West Virginia special teams against Oklahoma is a must if the Mountaineers hope to pull the upset. I define ‘solid’ as not coughing up the football, not surrendering any field-tilting returns and not getting flagged with any senseless penalties. And of course it always helps if one of the return units can ignite the crowd by springing Tavon Austin for a big one (Tavon has scored in the return game five times in his career).

2.) The Landry Jones factor
West Virginia has faced its share of great quarterbacks through the years, but none have been as battle-tested as Landry Jones – the most experienced signal caller in Oklahoma history. This matchup with WVU will mark the 47th start of Jones’ career. That’s 10 more than any other Sooners quarterback. In four years at OU, the Artesia, N.M. resident has thrown for 111 touchdowns and 15,070 yards. The latter figure is good for fourth place all-time among FBS quarterbacks. If you really want to appreciate how many times Jones has been around the horn, just consider this: against West Virginia he will likely attempt the 2,000th pass of his college career (he currently has 1,973). Jones has played in big-game environments and in addition to that, he has posted a 3-0 record in bowl games. He will be tough – but not impossible - to rattle. In his career, Jones has started 18 regular season games on the road. In those 18 games he has thrown 34 touchdowns against a bulky 25 interceptions and OU has posted a 10-8 record. If you pressure him, experienced or not, Jones will put the football in harm’s way – as evidenced by his 48 career picks. In Oklahoma’s two losses this season, he has managed just one touchdown pass while getting picked off twice. By no coincidence the Sooners ground game was rendered obsolete in those games, averaging just two yards per carry (as opposed to OU’s 5.8 yard average in its seven wins). The blueprint for success defensively against Oklahoma is an uncomplicated but challenging one. Throw bodies at the run game then pressure Jones and hold on for dear life.

3.) Third Down showdown
Oklahoma ranks No. 6 in the country in third down success and it will be incumbent upon the Mountaineers to get them off the field. As you might have expected, an inability to move the chains cost OU in losses to Kansas State and Notre Dame. In those two setbacks the Sooners converted just 24 percent of their third down attempts, compared to a 57 percent success rate in their seven wins. Maybe hope can be gleaned from the fact that the West Virginia defense has quietly shown progress in this area in recent weeks. In its last two outings WVU limited TCU and Oklahoma State to a combined 29 percent conversion rate on third down.

4.) The “No Passing Zone”
The numbers that Mike Stoops’ defense has put up against the pass are nothing short of stupefying. Despite playing in the fast-paced, pass-happy environs of the Big 12 Conference, through nine games the Sooners have allowed a paltry three touchdown passes. That’s right – three! To appreciate the magnitude of that figure, consider that the fewest touchdown passes allowed in any one season since 2000 by any team were the four allowed by the 2005 Maryland Terrapins. Here’s something else to chew on: Collin Klein (K-State), Seth Deoge (T-Tech) and Nick Florence (Baylor) have combined to throw for 71 touchdowns this year, but against OU, each of them laid a goose egg in that department. Led by veteran safeties Tony Jefferson and Javon Harris, Oklahoma has surrendered just 14 completions of 25 yards or more all season (WVU has allowed 36), it has yet to allow a 300-yard passer and it has held the opposition to a completion rate of under 50 percent. So, in a matchup that could be a challenge for Tavon, Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey and the rest of the West Virginia passing apparatus, can the Mountaineers get the ground game cranking to help out? Keep reading.

5.) Oklahoma’s suddenly embattled run defense
The Sooners came under fire after allowing 252 yards on the ground and four rushing touchdowns in a 42-34 win over Baylor last Saturday. OU will bring a middle-of-the-road rushing defense to Morgantown that is yielding 155 yards per contest. More alarming to Oklahoma fans than the yardage per game is the heftier-than-normal 4.2 yards per carry the Sooners have allowed. A few days after the Sooners were gashed for 213 yards rushing in a 24-19 loss to Kansas State in September, OU icon Barry Switzer caused something of a stir when he told an Oklahoma newspaper that Oklahoma was short on talent in the key positions that are needed to help a defense be disruptive. Switzer said the Sooners lacked players like “the Tommie Harrises and the Gerald McCoys” (both were OU defensive tackles who were high first round NFL draft picks in recent years). The kind of explosive, big-bodied men with a hand in the dirt who, as Switzer put it, can “push the pocket” and “cave in on people.” Maybe he was on to something. Take a moment to do a YouTube search for “Cierre Wood up the gut vs. Oklahoma” and you’ll quickly get a sense of what Switzer meant when you see what happens to the Sooners’ front seven on a 62-yard touchdown burst by Notre Dame. At best, OU’s defense has more limitations versus the run that it’s accustomed to. The Sooners finished in the Top 25 nationally against the run for 10 straight seasons from 2000-2009 before dipping to 58th in 2010, 43rd last year and 61st this time around. In its Sept. 1 opener, Oklahoma allowed UTEP’s Nathan Jeffery to churn out 177 yards before getting ripped by Kansas State’s Klein (79 yards) and John Hubert (130 yards) then bludgeoned by the Irish (215 yards). Yet between those games they managed to control both Texas Tech and Texas at the point of attack, limiting the Red Raiders and Longhorns to a combined average of 2.96 yards per carry. Now is as good a time as any for West Virginia to relocate its misplaced running game. During the Mountaineers 5-0 start they averaged 164 yards per outing and 5.0 per attempt. In the four game skid that has followed, those numbers have withered to 94 per game and 2.8 per attempt.

An inability to run the football – particularly in short yardage situations - was one of several aspects of last week’s loss in Stillwater that troubled Dana Holgorsen.

“We did a poor job of establishing the line of scrimmage,” Holgorsen said on Tuesday. “Look at all our third and shorts. We have no push. We had none.”

Finding that push could be the difference in this game.

Under Holgorsen, West Virginia is 8-0 when they average at least 4.0 yards per carry, but only 7-7 when it does not. Oklahoma’s opponents have managed to achieve that number five times in nine games this season.

Here’s hoping for six out of 10.

See you at the fifty.


West Viginia Mountaineers, WVU, Dana Holgorsen, Geno Smith, Oklahoma, Bob Stoops, Landry Jones, Big 12 football

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