Technically Speaking: West Virginia vs Oklahoma

Analysis Of A Key Match-Up Between WVU’s Defense & Baker Mayfield


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia not only has a match-up issue against Oklahoma, but a freelancing one as well.

There’s simply no way to predict, much less fully control, what quarterback Baker Mayfield does. His ability to make plays on the fly is the single biggest X factor for Tony Gibson’s defense, and it creates complications in everything from pass rush and pocket pressure to downfield coverage and how the Mountaineers want to station their linebackers while defending the pass.

Make no mistake: Mayfield, the nation’s leader in pass efficiency and the favorite or the Heisman Trophy, will play. It might not be until the second series of the second quarter or half, but the senior will see snaps for the Sooners as they try to clinch an 11-1 regular season and maintain momentum headed to the Big 12 title game.

What the means is a headache for West Virginia. The Mountaineers have been able to limit Mayfield better than any other Big 12 team. In two series games, Mayfield has completed 57.5 percent of his passes for 244.5 yards per game with five TDs and two picks. In the other conference games during that timetable Mayfield has hit on 71.3 percent passing for 311.8 yards per game and 75 scores against 12 interceptions.

That’s a difference of a 2.5-to-1 ratio against WVU versus a 6.3-to-1 ratio against other foes. The problem is that in the two wins over West Virginia, Oklahoma has still scored 44 and 56 points. Part of that was the pure playmaking ability of Mayfield, and how he extends plays, gains required yardage on scrambles and is able to be, as Tony Gibson says, a football player.

“They’ve got a great, dynamic quarterback,” safeties coach Matt Caponi said. “He leads the way, he’s a great competitor. Speed on the outside. Big, physical offensive line. Backs that take care of the football and run hard. They complement each other. They do a really good job of running to set up the pass.  They pose problems all over the field. I’ve watched 11 games and really haven’t seen anyone slow them down.”

So what are the keys? As a defense overall, they’re the same for West Virginia as they have been in other contests with an increased difficulty level.

“It’s winning the battle up-front, winning first down and getting them behind the chains, forcing them into situations where you know they are going to throw the ball,” Caponi said. “When we know what they are going to do that, it’s then containing the quarterback and making sure you keep him in the pocket and disguise coverages. We have to do a really good job up-front and tackle well, especially if that ball gets to the second level. We can’t miss as many tackles as we did last week. It’s about playing hard strained and getting off blocks and sticking to our scheme. Just making sure our guys do their job and not try to press or do too much.”

The early part of that quote is where West Virginia will make it’s break, or be toasted by the Baker himself. The WVU defensive front was largely controlled against Texas, and this week it faces a similarly sized line with vast amounts of experience as all five starters return. The Mountaineers must manage a stalemate along the front and then be able to limit the yardage gained on first downs. That transitions into being able to have proper gap fits and leverage on the football to slow the run and put the Sooners in second and third and longs.

That, as a domino effect, leads to a narrowing of the playbook and the ability to focus on the passing game and pocket containment of Mayfield. As line coach Bruce Tall noted, his players must get some push upfield, but understand where and how Mayfield likes to leak out. The quarterback doesn’t typically take off initially without a clear vertical lane. Instead, he prefers to sit back, buy time and survey downfield looking to throw. Keep an eye on West Virginia’s line, and how far upfield Tall is willing to push on passing downs, or if he locks the ends in more of a containment location and trues a controlled rush.

The most impressive plays Mayfield makes – and the ones that are truly dangerous outside the pure pitch-and-catch aspect of OU’s offense, are when he starts creating extra time behind the line of scrimmage, retaining the ability to throw downfield and forcing an extension of coverage to upwards o six, seven or eight seconds. It’s nearly impossible to stay with the Sooner receivers that long, and it’ll lead to death by the big play, which is what has plagued the Mountaineers the last two seasons.

West Virginia must find the balance of being able to collapse the pocket without necessarily flushing Mayfield, and that’s a tough tightrope to walk. Check the linebacker and safety play for the Mountaineers, and how Gibson is using them. WVU was successful in slowing the midrange pass game by having the LBs and safeties flatten out at times and not try to get to the QB on the scramble, but rather drop and defend downfield until added numbers can get to the vicinity, at which point one defender covers the area/player and the other attacks the quarterback.

The worry is, because of Mayfield’s pinpoint passing and ability to shred narrow windows, leaving him back there after eluding the rush simply creates opportunities for massive gains for the Oklahoma offense. There’s a reason Mayfield ranks second nationally in passing yards and touchdowns, the latter stat being tied with Will Grier (for now) at 34. WVU has to strike the correct balance and limit the big plays. It can live with being nickle and dimed here and there; it cannot survive another 60 minutes of quick scores and quicker strikes – though that’s far easier said than done against an offense of Oklahoma’s ability.

“They have some size,” Caponi said. “(Mark) Andrews, the tight end, he has some size and can create mismatches with smaller type bodies, smaller safeties. The other guys that they use in the slot have some speed. They run really well, and they do a really good job of using the run to set up the pass.

“It’s making sure that we are disciplined with our eyes. We play great technique, whether it is zone coverage or man coverage, getting hands on receivers in zone coverage and collision and getting our eyes right in man coverage. Just trying to eliminate the big play. We will let them complete a five-yard route, but don’t give up the 70-yard route over your head. That is all about technique and eye discipline.”