When you think of the Big 12, and West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen, obviously the first thing you think of is suffocating defense, right?
In the land of offenses faster than tornadoes and scoreboard operators busier than ants, the conference’s best team through four games has been neither the explosive Baylor Bears or TCU Horned Frogs, but the West Virginia Mountaineers, who are blowing up the very defense-optional narrative they helped usher in with the nation’s top pass defense.
Oklahoma, meanwhile, is trending back upward after a tough 2014, which ended with the Sooners’ replacing almost their entire coaching staff. New offensive coordinator Lincoln Reilly is returning the Sooners to Bob Stoops‘ original Air Raid roots and has a talented do-everything quarterback in Baker Mayfield to facilitate the whole machine.
This one’s gonna be good.
FIRST REAL TEST FOR THIS DEFENSE . . .
. . . which has been lights-out so far. The Mountaineers slaughtered a Georgia Southern team 44-0 (average scoring in three other contests: 45 points), wrecked FCS Liberty, and humiliated Maryland 45-6.
But, Georgia Southern was playing without its suspended quarterback. Maryland has been abysmal, also getting blown out by Bowling Green 48-27. Credit to the Mountaineers: they’ve put the clamps down on these offenses, regardless of how bad, allowing just a 45% completion rate for just two touchdowns and nine picks. That’s good no matter how you slice it.
And now we get to learn how good this defense really is. For Oklahoma, Mayfield has settled into his role admirably, completing 67% of his passes for 9.7 yards per attempt and ten scores to two picks . . . but he had a rough outing against the only good defense he’s played so far this season (Tennessee), when he completed just 49% and threw both of those picks. If West Virginia can get in his head they can ruin his day . . . but despite otherworldly pass defense numbers, the Mountaineers haven’t managed even a semblance of a pass rush, content to let their secondary do the heavy lifting. If they want to challenge Mayfield they’ll have to spend some time in the backfield.
SKYLER HOWARD’S BIG-TIME DEBUT
Now don’t think that just because West Virginia is playing lights-out defense that they’ve abandoned their spread roots. Quarterback Skyler Howard has turned in three quality showings thus far, completing 69% for 10.9 yards per attempt and nine touchdowns. They’re third in the nation in passing efficiency, and have a running back (Wendell Smallwood) averaging nearly seven yards per carry. The Sooner pass defense is susceptible (Tulsa proved that) and an offensive mind as capable as Holgorsen’s can surely find some openings.
The Sooner’s strength on defense thus far has been stuffing the run, where they rank in the nation’s top ten. Smallwood has been efficient but not explosive in the run game, and I think the Sooners should be just fine trying to shut him down.
HOW WILL WAVU ANSWER?
If West Virginia wants to go into Norman and win this game, they’ll need to do two things. First, get into the backfield and pressure Mayfield. He’s too talented to be allowed to sit and find his receivers. Second, Howard will need to carry the team on his arm, because the Sooners can stuff the run. Amazing pass defense aside, I feel a smidge better about Oklahoma in this game given their run defense, but I’m excited to watch these two young quarterbacks duke it out.