The Chalkboard: WVU – Oklahoma

The Chalkboard: WVU – Oklahoma


West Virginia is faced with a difficult choice in working up its offensive game plan for Oklahoma. With a first-time starter in Chris Chugunov at quarterback, the Mountaineers might be expected to be conservative. Try to run the ball, keep the clock moving, throw a number of screen passes with the occasional deep ball, shorten the game and keep the ball away from the Sooners’ high-powered offense. However, OU expects exactly that. They’ll be playing the run, crowding receivers off the line, and daring WVU to throw the more difficult dig and crossing routes, or those that require tighter timing or multiple reads from the QB and wide receiver.

Then there’s the alternative – throw the ball all over the lot in Norman. Empty the playbook of every formation and play that might work against OU, and don’t worry about how much experience the wide receivers have with Chugs, or that the timing might be off. In the words of WVU offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, “Go out there and cut it loose and have some fun.”

The only problem with that approach is that Oklahoma has been improving against the pass, and is giving up only 250 yards per game through the air, and allowing just a 58% completion rate. So, what to do? It just doesn’t seem likely that the Mountaineers can forge an upset by playing it close to the vest. Understandably, Spavital has to call plays that Chugunov can execute. There aren’t going to be many quarterback runs in the game plan. But the time to get him comfortable was in practice over the past week, not in the first and second quarter on Saturday. If they Mountaineers can’t put up multiple scores in the first 30 minutes, the game will be over by halftime.

This doesn’t mean WVU should abandon the run entirely. However, as the Big 12 season has progressed, that part of the offense has worsened, and produced no big plays. The Mountaineers have just two runs of 20 yards or more against Big 12 opponents, and haven’t been able to forge consistent drives based around the running game.

The only bright spot in all of this is that, without classes this week, Chugunov was able to spend a ton of time with Spavital.

“Obviously it’s a really good week for Chugs,” the offensive coordinator said. “He can spend more time in here with me and get on the same page. He’s very comfortable with running the system. I think he’s fired up to play.”

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How much will the initial absence of Baker Mayfield affect the Sooners? Not much. It would be a shock if he sits out more than one or two series, and backup Kyler Murray can run the ball even better than Mayfield on designed plays. Murray doesn’t match Mayfield’s passing or scrambling ability, but he can head a series of zone read plays utilizing another loaded Oklahoma backfield, where the top three ball carriers average 6.5 yards per carry. He can pass off those run looks effectively enough, and with so much to prepare for against Mayfield it’s unlikely that the Mountaineer defense can do much more than tweak its approach for Murray, who might only be on the field for a few plays. WVU will play run-first against Murray, but it couldn’t sell out and devote much of its prep time to him.

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With a win Saturday, Lincoln Riley would set the Oklahoma record for most victories in a debut season, passing Barry Switzer (10 in 1973) and Chuck Fairbanks (10 in 1967). Riley would also become 13th coach in FBS history with no previous head coaching experience at a four-year college to win at least 11 games in his first year.

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West Virginia’s offensive tackles are going to be challenged mightily by Oklahoma edge defender Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, who leads the Big 12 and is tied for 13th nationally with 8.0 sacks. He’s a major disruptor who also has 17 tackles for loss and has forced three fumbles, and will be one of the first players identified when the Mountaineers come to the line. When passing the ball, WVU will likely have to assign an extra blocker, most likely Elijah Wellman or Trevon Wesco, to try to keep him out of the face of Chugunov. On running plays, either going away from him altogether, or trying to use his upfield aggressiveness against him, will be part of the plan.

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The tough part of that is that OU will move Okoronkwo all over the field, and put him at either end or linebacker. The Mountaineers will have to make good reads in pass protection to slide it to his side on the fly, and perhaps make more play calls at the line in general after seeing his initial alignment. That’s more on the plate for Chugunov and the line, and might be one of the most difficult match-ups of the day for WVU. As West Virginia comes up for the snap, find #31 on defense, and watch how the Mountaineers react. Will they change plays altogether to avoid him, or adjust positioning to account for him?

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Most everything has to go right for WVU to pull an upset, and a good place to start would be in catching passes. Drops have become a distressing constant in the West Virginia passing attack, and have killed multiple scoring chances. Has it been the weather? Mountaineer receivers say no, other than in an earlier game when “bad gloves” were stripped off by wide receivers coach Tyron Carrier. Still, the drop rate has increased against Kansas State and Texas. While “getting on the same page” with the new starting quarterback is goal, they can help him out the most quickly by catching the passes that are on target.

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WVU wide receiver Marcus Simms has 666 kickoff return yards. Eek. Let’s get that changed quickly.

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West Virginia has done as well as anybody at limiting Mayfield through the air. In two games as a Sooner against the Mountaineers, he is 23-for-40 (57.5 percent) for 489 yards (average of 244.5) with five touchdowns and two picks (2.5-to-1 ratio). He has also run for two scores. In his other 24 Big 12 games while at OU, Mayfield has completed 71.3 percent of his passes for an average of 311.8 yards with 75 TDs and just 12 interceptions (6.3-to-1 ratio).

Would similar numbers be enough to put WVU in range of pulling off a shocker? That might be the initial reaction, but it should be noted that the Sooners scored 44 and 56 points in those two games, rushing for 423 yards. The Mountaineers might drop 11 into coverage, as defensive coordinator Tony Gibson joked, but there’s much more to the Sooner attack than the quarterback.