Make no mistake about it, this is a huge game for Oklahoma and West Virginia this weekend. The Sooners have a legitimate shot at a BCS bowl birth and the Mountaineers are struggling to get over the hump to bowl eligibility.
Both teams also have fan bases that are struggling with their team's preseason expectations and frustration is going to grow extensively towards the team that loses.
Giving us some insight on the Mountaineers, and their thoughts towards this game, is Country Roads from SBN's West Virginia site, The Smoking Musket.
CCM: I have to admit, I was just about ready to surrender the Big 12 to WVU back in September. What happened?
SM: Everyone who follows WVU has been trying to figure that out since we got blasted by Texas Tech, and everyone will probably give you a different answer. I think we were playing above our heads a bit against Baylor and Texas, in part because we had a lot of confidence. For whatever reason, we went into Lubbock and just played awful in all three phases. Obviously Texas Tech is a good team, and Lubbock is a tough place to play, and Tuberville does a great job getting his guys ready to play highly ranked teams, and I think we were probably a little overconfident.
Then we got punched in the mouth and lost some of our confidence, and then Kansas State came into Morgantown the next week and dealt us another blow. So between those two games, we lost our edge a bit. While Geno Smith hasn't been the same quarterback since the Texas win, if you look at the TCU and Oklahoma State games, those were both winnable games where we were undone by a series of boneheaded mistakes. When you make those kind of mistakes against quality teams like we have in the Big 12, it ends up costing you. WVU is clearly capable of playing better, and they've actually showed that in various degrees throughout the season, but whether we can put it all together to become a good team again remains to be seen.
CCM: Are the struggles on the defensive side of the ball personnel or schematic, or both?
SM: A little bit of both. We're young and thin on, and right now we don't have the talent needed to be a good Big 12 defense. Couple that with the implementation of a new scheme and improved competition week to week, and you have a recipe for disaster. The thought all along was that if the defense could create a couple turnovers and get a couple key stops a game, the offense would have a chance to win games for us. It was the complete implosion of our offense against Tech and K-State that befuddled everyone, and we really haven't been able to recover and find our swagger again. That, and shoddy special teams play has now cost us 2 games. Going back to the last question a bit, I think most fans thought 10-2 would be a great season, with 9-3 or 8-4 being the most likely outcome. Change those last 2 results and we're right on par with that.
CCM: With the way that things went down with the coaching change, did Dana Holgorson get a "Honeymoon Phase" or are people starting to sour on him after four consecutive losses?
SM: Four consecutive losses are going to be cause for concern among almost any fan base, particularly one as fickle as WVU's. Mountianeer fans used to be deeply passionate regardless of how well WVU was playing. Expectations were low, and folks just kind of hoped for a big upset every now and then that would attract the national spotlight to Morgantown. I think our run of success in the Big East and our new microwave culture of social media has changed that a bit. We want success, and we want it now, and anything less than meeting or exceeding our lofty expectations is cause for PANIC!
Personally, I don't know how much of a honeymoon phase anyone gets anymore unless you take over a program that has been truly awful like Colorado, Indiania, Kansas, etc. Some of the losses and the way they happened the last couple years have been concerning, but Holgorsen bought himself a lot of credit with the Orange Bowl win. I think the last three games this season and all of next season will tell us a lot about where the Holgorsen era is headed. If he can finish this year at 8-5 after a bowl and follow that up with a respectable record next year, I think fans will lay off. But if he misses a bowl this year after starting 5-0 and being ranked 4th in the country, the natives will be very restless.
CCM: What are defenses doing differently now, against the WVU offense, that wasn't being done earlier in the season?
SM: The formula looks to be shutting down WVU's running game, containing deep routes, and tackling well underneath. Baylor got beat over the top time and again, and Texas got gashed by our running game. Tech and K-State did everything I mentioned, and TCU and Oklahoma State did enough of it to pull out a win. Our offensive line has struggled big-time during this time, so teams have been able to stop the run and get pressure with their front 3 or 4, then dropped 7 or 8 into coverage. It's hard to move the ball against anyone who can do that consistently.
CCM: Tell Oklahoma fans what they cam expect from the atmosphere in Morgantown on game day, and give us a score prediction.
SM: Usually I would say that a night game in Morgantown is special, and that a highly ranked team coming in will be in for a great atmosphere. I hope that's still the case, but judging by the attitude on our message boards and the number of tickets I've seen floating around, I'm afraid we won't live up to our reputation. That being said, the people who do go to the game (I'm predicting 57,000 in a 60,000 seat stadium) will give Oklahoma fans a very warm welcome. I've made a point to chat with fans from opposing teams, and the overwhelming response is that WVU has been fun and hospitable.
The Smoking Musket has put together a series of visitors guides for attractions, restaurants, and bars, so I'd encourage anyone making the trip to check those out for advice on where to go and what to do. The tailgating is pretty centrally located around the Blue Lot directly in front of the stadium, and it kind of branches out from there. WVUIE97 and 5th Year Senior from our blog can be found at the top of Law School Hill and will be sure to take care of everyone they can accommodate (I'm up there sometimes, but my dad is coming in so we will likely grab lunch and a beer at the Boston Beanery, then head to the Blue Lot where he knows more people).
Being the eternal optimist that I am, I'm predicting that the fans who show up will be rowdy and supportive, and because the Mountaineers are due for a big win, I think we finally pull one out. 42-40, West Virginia.