West Virginia will face its two toughest opponents of the season in its final two games of the regular slate, beginning with Saturday’s match-up against Oklahoma at Milan Puskar Stadium.
The timing of such contests can work either for or against teams in that scheduling situation, but for the Mountaineers the play of the first of those two foes, Oklahoma, falls in the latter category.
“They are playing their best football in the last month,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said as his team returned from an open date to run the final gauntlet. “Some of that is (quarterback) Spencer Rattler maturing. A freshman QB with that talent, he’s going to improve, and he has. He is in a rhythm throwing the football right now. And getting (running back Rhamondre) Stevenson and (defensive end Ronnie) Perkins back – they are a different team with those guys in the lineup.
Stevenson has only played in OU’s most recent three games, but has piled up 332 yards on just 50 carries over that time, scoring five times. He has made the OU attack more diverse than it was earlier this year, when the Sooner dropped a pair of games
“Oklahoma has been elite on offense for a long time,” Brown said. “Lincoln Riley and OU have been in the Top Ten stats in a lot of areas since he has gotten there. This is a really difficult group to defend, especially with the Stevenson kid and the way he is playing. They have guys with power, and guys with speed. [They] have versatility with the tight ends (Austin) Stogner and (Brayden) Willis and (Jeremiah) Hall, and #3 (Mikey Henderson) in the mix too.”
That quartet, which OU lists as H-Backs, has combined for 54 catches for 787 and nine scores.
There’s also a hidden performance factor on OU’s receiving corps that has Brown’s attention.
“The guy that doesn’t get talked about enough is (Drake) Stoops. What he does on the perimeter in blocking, he had a hand in many of their explosive plays Saturday night. I think they are playing as well as anyone in the country.”
Oklahoma’s defense, long a liability, is performing much better after getting back to full strength. Perkins, also back in action for just the last three games, has 13 tackles and 3.5 sacks over that span.
“Perkins played at an elite level (against Oklahoma State),” Brown said. “Their defense starts up front, and their front four is imposing. They have the ability to rush the passer without blitzing and clog up the run game. They play extremely hard and mix up their fronts and move a lot. It’s probably the best front four in the league. Their corners have improved as they have gone on, and they have been able to play more man coverage.”
Given the problems West Virginia had with Texas’ defensive front, this sounds like another tall task for the WVU offensive line.
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WVU linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo, who missed the TCU game with an injury, is back into action, but still not 100% in for Saturday’s game.
“Josh ran last week and will practice this week,” Brown updated. “We are hopeful he will play, but we can’t say he’s definitely in yet.”
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That hoped-for return can only help a WVU defense that has been very good this year, especially against the pass. Along with a couple of expected factors, Brown listed two other areas which have allowed the Mountaineers to be successful in that defensive phase.
“A pass rush is always the best thing for pass coverage, and our cornerbacks have improved as the year has gone on. I think we have two safeties that are veteran guys that communicate very well, and (coach) Jahmile Addae has done a great job in putting us in position to be successful.”
Indeed, in addition to talent, knowing how to employ it and putting players into situations where they can bring those skills to bear is a vital linchpin in consistent performance. West Virginia will need every bit of that against a Sooner passing attack that has averaged 344 yards through the air this season.
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The ability of the Sooners to start out fast hasn’t gone unnoticed by Brown, and he thinks that’s directly tied to an OU skill described by the key word in that phrase. Oklahoma has outscored its opponent by the count of 124-17 in the first quarter this year, giving it a leg up that has been difficult to overcome since its two early losses.
“They are getting explosive plays early. Their speed is at a different level of teams you play week in and week out, and it can take some time to get used to that,” Brown analyzed.
That has definitely been the case for West Virginia in recent years, and while the Mountaineers do have better overall defensive team speed this season, they haven’t faced an opponent with more offensive speed this season.
Brown discounted Oklahoma’s use of scripts in setting early play calls as a major advantage, although he does credit Riley and his weekly adjustments in taking advantage of his team’s sprinting ability.
“We script first series or two, and we have been good with it, but not as good as they have been.”
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One thing that might make West Virginia’s games against Oklahoma easier? The departure of Riley to an NFL job. A joking Brown noted that he “was all for Lincoln if he’s ready to go.”
Continuing in a more serious vein, Brown observed that there are jobs in college football that have combinations of pressure and expectations that can make them more difficult, but that it hasn’t seemed to affect Riley.
“Those jobs are hard, and he has made it look relatively easy at Oklahoma.”