8:00 PM EST, ABC – Line: Oklahoma -4, Over/Under: 66
A Big Twelve Showdown is on tap tonight in Morgantown, as the fourteenth-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers host the ninth-ranked Oklahoma Sooners in a contest that will in all likelihood go a long towards deciding the outcome of the conference. Indeed it appears that reports of Oklahoma’s (8-2, 7-0 in Big Twelve) demise were premature, as Bob Stoops and his charges have circled the wagons after dropping two out of their first three games of the season. As has been the case for over a decade now, the Sooners’ collective fortunes changed for the better the moment they waded into the waters of their conference schedule, where they have yet to meet defeat. However, that’s not to say that they haven’t met competition, for there were some very close calls along the way. Three out of their first four conference games were decided a grand total of eighteen points, while the defense was torched on a regular basis, yielding a combined 145 points in victories over the likes of Texas Christian (52-46), Texas (45-40), and Texas Tech (66-59). In fact, the Track Meet against the Red Raiders saw the Sooners yield a ludicrous 854 yards of Total Offense!!! Granted, they managed to win the game, but if the horns weren’t sounding for Stoops to make adjustments on Defense after that embarrassing performance, then they likely never would. But, hey as a certain skipper down in Tuscaloosa likes to say, It’s a Process!!! We’ve got no idea what he or his brother (and Defensive Coordinator) Mike Stoops said to their charges afterward, but we’re guessing it wasn’t very pleasant, and it apparently resonated because in the three games since that wild affair, Oklahoma has been pretty damn sound on that particular side of the ball. In victories over Kansas (56-3), Iowa State (34-24), and Baylor (45-24), they yielded a combined fifty-one points, or in other words, six less points than they did in sixty minutes of play against Texas Tech. So what’s changed, you ask? Well, in an offensive-oriented conference like the Big Twelve, it sure does help to have a stable Secondary, which Stoops appears to have finally found in the form of Cornerbacks Jordan Thomas and Jordan Parker; Thomas, who struggled greatly earlier in the campaign has recaptured the form that made him so promising as a Sophomore, while Parker, a Freshman has seized the opportunity after two more Corners crashed and burned before him. These guys were a huge reason why the defense made a complete about-face against the pass, yielding an average of 191.0 yards through the air over the last three outings, even limiting Baylor’s prolific aerial attack to a miserable 45.7% passing. For their efforts, the Linebackers have stepped up too, particularly Jordan Evans, who leads the unit with seventy-six tackles (7.5 for loss), 2.5 Sacks, three interceptions and a touchdown, while amassing a pair of Sacks and Interceptions last weekend against the Bears. With all that said, we’d be remiss if we didn’t give some time to the Sooners’ Offense, which continues to be one of the very best in the country; in 2016, Oklahoma has averaged 44.2 points (8th Overall) on 557.5 Total yards, including 338.1 through the air and another 219.4 on the ground. Redshirt Junior Quarterback Baker Mayfield is set to shatter the hefty numbers he posted in his first year in Norman after transferring from Lubbock, Texas, completing 72.0% of his attempts for 3,212 yards, thirty-three touchdowns and just seven interceptions, while picking up another four scores with his legs. Speaking of legs, Tailbacks Joe Mixon (937 yards, 6 TD) and Samaje Perine (575 yards, 8 TD) have been as productive a tandem in the country, combining for 1,512 yards and fourteen touchdowns. The former has really developed as a Receiver out of the Backfield (29 catches, 420 yards, 4 TD), as Stoops has endeavored to get both players on the field as much as possible in an effort to create mismatches with opposing Linebackers. And then there’s Dede Westbrook, who looks like the next Oklahoma Wideout to head to the NFL, reeling in sixty-eight receptions for 1,254 yards and fourteen touchdowns, developing a excellent rapport with Mayfield. Yeah, these guys are loaded once again…
Meanwhile, hot on the heels of the Sooners in the Big Twelve is West Virginia (8-1, 5-1 in Big Twelve), who have rebounded quite nicely after suffering their first loss of the season two weeks ago at Oklahoma State (37-20). Dana Holgorsen’s charges had their collective resolve tested against the likes of Kansas (48-21) and most recently Texas (24-20), but managed to outlast both opponents in their pursuit of their first Big Twelve Championship. The Mountaineers took command in their trip to Austin, Texas last weekend, jumping on the home side early building a 17-3 lead at one point early in the Second Quarter, before managing to stave off a furious rally from the Longhorns. It was a rather sloppy game for both teams, combining for seven turnovers and ten penalties for 105 yards. With that said, the visitors bended and bended and bended, but never quite broke, relinquishing an alarming 536 Total Yards (including 218 on the ground), yet just three touchdowns. Skyler Howard had a rough go of it from the Pocket, were he completed 21-of-35 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown, but was picked not once, not twice, but three times. Fortunately, the running game continued to produce (114 yards, 2 TD), led by Kennedy McKoy, who ran his way to a team-high seventy-three yards and two scores on twenty-five carries. And that’s going to be the key for tonight’s contest, as there is likely no perceivable way this team can hand Oklahoma their first conference loss without rushing the ball successfully. While it’s unlikely that the Mountaineers’ Defense will be able to slow down the Sooners’ explosive Offense, there is a pretty damn good chance that they will be able to keep Mayfield and all those weapons waiting on the sidelines by chewing up the clock with their own ground game. Holgorsen has a very balanced distribution here, folks, as three different Tailbacks have rushed for at least 450 yards and a pair of touchdowns, with the aforementioned Howard picking up another 274 yards and six scores to boot. Rushel Shell (505 yards, 5 TD), Justin Crawford (599 yards, 4 TD), and the aforementioned McKoy (459 yards, 2 TD) have all been very effective in a variety of ways, churning out yards behind one of the more underrated Offensive Lines in the country. Their 114 rushing yards against Texas last weekend was actually a season-low, but we doubt that will deter them against Oklahoma, who on the season has been gashed on the ground to the tune of 132.4 rushing yards, including a staggering 212 in their last outing against Baylor. Furthermore, a productive rushing attack should help Howard out immensely; the Senior has show gradual improvement this season, completing a career-best 64.5% of his attempts for 2,562 yards, seventeen touchdowns and nine interceptions, but has been rather Helter Skelter of late, throwing as many interceptions (five) as touchdowns over the last three weeks. This isn’t a very good sign heading into tonight’s showdown, for in his only meeting with the Sooners, Howard was a miserable 17-of-32 for 173 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions in last year’s 44-24 shellacking in Norman. On that day in early October, the visiting Mountaineers rallied back from a 24-7 deficit to cut the lead to 27-24 late in the Third Frame, but collapsed late as the hosts ran off twenty unanswered points over the final sixteen minutes of play. With that said, don’t expect Holgorsen to be shy when it comes to testing the Sooners’ newly formed Secondary; West Virginia has a pair of dangerous deep threats in the form of Shelton Gibson (35 catches, 701 yards, 6 TD) and Daikiel Shorts (51 catches, 753 yards, 4 TD), with the former averaging a very healthy twenty yards per catch. Since arriving in the Big Twelve back in 2012, this team has yet to defeat the perennial powerhouse of the conference, losing both of their meetings in Morgantown.
Predicted Outcome: West Virginia 37, Oklahoma 33