West Virginia football faces stern challenge in Oklahoma defense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As if West Virginia didn't have enough to overcome in the midst of a four-game losing streak — the school's longest since 2001 — the Mountaineers now face the unique challenge presented by Oklahoma's rugged defense tonight at 7 p.m. at Milan Puskar Stadium.
While the No. 12 Sooners play a four-man defense front favored by other Big 12 teams, they're unusual in their ability apply man-to-man coverage in the secondary.
It will be yet another test in a season of challenges for WVU (5-4, 2-4 Big 12), which, despite its recent struggles, ranks No. 5 nationally in passing offense and No. 18 in total offense.
Oklahoma (7-2, 5-1) is No. 8 in passing defense — tops among Big 12 teams — and No. 20 in total defense.
“It's a different approach than what we've faced over the last six or seven games,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. “We've seen a lot of zone coverage. They've got tremendous athletes and football players. They've got big, thick guys up front that do a great job against the run and they've got about six or seven guys that can cover all over.”
Saturday's game will feature the Mountaineers' two playmaking receivers, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, attempting to get open against single coverage.
Austin and Bailey have combined for 171 receptions and 29 touchdowns this season (two via kick returns). Austin needs four receptions to record 100 catches for the second consecutive season.
“It's a good opportunity for our wideouts to have some one-on-one matchups, and it's up to me to put the ball in the right spot,” said senior quarterback Geno Smith, who ranks second nationally in passing.
Holgorsen is excited about developing a gameplan in which his top receivers will face single coverage. But he realizes that igniting the passing game won't be as easy as it appears.
For one, Holgorsen said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops understands the nuances of WVU's offense based on Holgorsen's years in the Big 12. For another, the Sooners are good at disguising coverages.
“They know more about our offensive scheme than probably we know about their defensive scheme, just from them coaching against my offense when I was at Oklahoma State and in my years at Texas Tech,” Holgorsen said.
“There (are) one-on-one matchups. Are our guys good enough to win those one-on-one matchups? When you think of a one-on-one matchup, you are not looking at one receiver having to beat one DB. You are looking at four receivers and potentially a running back who have to win those matchups, and then you have two safeties. They still have help over the top, and then there are four people up front, and then add the linebacker, which is a fifth guy up front. So there are five lineman and five people. They have to win that one-on-one matchup, too.”
John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.