The West Virginia Mountaineers are having quite the unexpected season. Picked by pundits to finish squarely in the middle of a mediocre Big 12, per usual, the mountain men have instead surprised with a near-perfect effort that’s seen wins over Missouri, BYU, TCU, Texas Tech and Texas.
WVU’s luck finally ran out in Stillwater a few weeks ago, suggesting the squad wasn’t quite as strong as its early record may have indicated. Still, the Mountaineers control their own destiny and can still claim the Big 12, a prize that, however unlikely, may still come with a Playoff berth.
Here’s how West Virginia has defied expectations so far this year:
Dana Holgorsen may have been the only man alive who really thought Skyler Howard was going to become one of the Big 12’s best quarterbacks, but Howard hasn’t disappointed in his second season as the WVU signal-caller. This year he’s completing 65 percent of his passes for 17 touchdowns and has thrown for almost 285 yards a game, though his nine interceptions suggest a careless streak.
Howard’s two picks (and one fumble) proved to be the team’s undoing against Oklahoma State, for instance, though only one was actually his fault—the other hit his receiver, in stride, in the hands before bouncing up for the taking. When the WVU offense gets pass-happy, Howard can become predictable and might just gift Jordan Evans another underthrown ball.
Mostly, though, Howard has been the catalyst for an offense that’s surprised everyone. It’s a top-20 offense nationally—which makes it a middle-of-the-pack Big 12 unit—and Howard’s growth has been a big part of that. The senior native Texan has a good pocket presence, a strong arm and the ability to take off for modest gains when asked. He’s the team’s fourth-leading rusher.
As far as dedicated running backs, WVU was expected to lean on senior Rushel Shell this year, but he only got one touch against Texas in a 24-20 win. Now the job belongs to true freshman Kennedy McKoy. He’s a speedy back who’s a threat in the short passing game and will widen the field for the OU defense. Ohio State put up big numbers getting outside against OU, so West Virginia will probably look to do the same.
West Virginia’s most common formation is a basic, four wide receiver set with two guys out wide, two slot receivers and a running back. They also like to stack receivers, usually only two of them and only to one side. These formations set up actions like quick screens, delayed handoffs, QB keeps and shallow crosses. The idea is to spread defenses as thin as possible and give Howard options. Personally, I don’t like this matchup for OU, but I’m skeptical that WVU’s vaunted defense will keep the Sooners off the board, either.
West Virginia runs a 3-3-5 defense (which, I mean, Oklahoma basically does too, so nothing to freak out about) with a hybrid “Spur” back sharing linebacker and secondary duties. Kyzir White handles that tricky spot for the Mountaineers.
Last season defensive end Noble Nwachukwu got most of the team’s sacks, and he has 3 again this season, but the pass rush is a little more evenly distributed. White and strongside linebacker Justin Arndt both have 3 as well. West Virginia’s base formation allows it to effectively disguise coverages and pass rushes to an extent, and the unit has hauled down 10 interceptions this year—including an impressive 6 for senior corner Rasul Douglas, who has as many picks as pass breakups (also a team-leading figure).
West Virginia’s not afraid to bring the house on third down, which Lincoln Riley should be able to handle with some checkdown passes or screens, but should still give him pause. WVU’s front seven is more athletic than the average Big 12 unit, so I don’t see Baker Mayfield running away from them, or through them, with much success.
My biggest worry about the defense is that they’ll smother the OU passing game and keep Dede Westbrook locked up. Oklahoma got bailed out several times by long third down conversions against Baylor, and I don’t think they’ll enjoy the same success against the Mountaineers. They’ll need more third-and-manageable situations to put quick points on West Virginia, and that starts with the running game. Expect Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine to, as usual, be the focal point for this squad on Saturday.
The Mountaineers have impressed and surprised everyone this year (well, except for me), but no one has really taken them seriously as a Playoff contender. If they beat the Sooners, though, people just might.
The Mountaineers have truly shined on defense, holding Texas Tech to just 17 points in Lubbock and demonstrating that, yes, it is possible to play both sides of the ball in the Big 12. But to me, the talent level just isn’t there, and OU has one of the nation’s best offenses—probably better than Tech’s. The Sooners are going to score more than 17 and, hopefully, move within a week of back-to-back conference titles.