After the first football game of most seasons, coaches have a fairly good handle on where there teams stand in terms of progress and needed improvements. While 60 minutes of action isn’t enough to make a definitive evaluation on each position group or aspect of play, that is enough action to assess what worked and what needs work heading into Game Two.
That’s probably not the case for the offensive lines of both West Virginia and Oklahoma State heading into the Big 12 clash between the two squads on Saturday, however. Both, for varying reasons, featured lineups in their first games that will be susbstantially different when they face each other.
West Virginia saw two-fifths of its anticipated starting offensive front sidelined against Eastern Kentucky when left tackle Junior Uzebu and center Chase Behrndt were suspended for the contest. While their backups, Brandon Yates and Zach Frazier, played reasonably well, WVU missed the important chance to get its staters working together in game action. Behrndt, with 13 starts and action in 11 others, probably won’t be hurt much individually, but it would have been nice for Uzebu to get those first start game jitters out, as he saw very limited play in just two games last year. Plus, the ability to review video of all five projected starters working together, and build off that over the intervening two weeks of practice, has been lost.
“I think there’s some anticipation, because we haven’t seen them,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said of the thought that this second game is really like a first one in some regards. “Junior hasn’t played in a game, Chase hasn’t played in a game. They have practiced really well. I am confident in how those guys are going to play and how they are going to rise to the occasion. But it is a little different going into game two where they didn’t play [in game one].”
The idea of lost synergy is also in play with the OSU front due to a different circumstance. Injuries and shaky performance during the Pokes’ opener against Tulsa led to nine different offensive linemen playing in the game. One of those, highly-regarded guard Cole Birmingham, sustained an apparent ankle injury that could keep him out of the WVU contest.
“We’ll find out on him. His was a little more serious,” OSU head coach Mike Gundy said of Birmingham’s injury and prognosis. “His was a little more serious than [Spencer Sanders’] injury was.”
Gundy termed OSU’s line play “not very good” against Tulsa, and observed that the lack of continuity hurt the line’s play. That echoes the thoughts of Brown, and leaves both coaches still wondering exactly what they have up front. In many ways, this game will be more like a season-opener than a league lid-lifter.
“Their offensive line they had some injuries in the game, and that (affects) their communication” Brown said of the Cowboy offensive front. “People don’t talk about that. The o-line piece is so important from a communication standpoint. It’s so hard to work different groups during COVID times.”
Oklahoma State’s troubles up front contributed to six allowed sacks against Tulsa – a number that has been seized upon by some as an indicator that West Virginia’s defensive front will wreak havoc against an outmanned opponent. That’s more than a bit of a stretch, though. While the Cowboys will probably have to play without Birmingham, there figures to be more stability with less shuffling among positions. Also, it’s hard to imagine that OSU will again be forced to play three quarterbacks, with resultant changes in playcalling that also force adjustments, as well as the communication issues described by Brown.
For WVU’s part, look for the same search for continuity, with only a couple of backups figuring in the plans.
“I feel OK going seven, maybe eight deep with the offensive line,” said Brown, likely including Briason Mays along with Yates and Frazier as candidates for significant playing time on Saturday.