The Sooners (8-2, 7-0 in conference) will be playing West Virginia (8-1, 5-1 in conference) tonight on the road. With Louisville’s Thursday loss to Houston, the game now has playoff implications (potentially for both teams). Here’s what to watch as the teams face off tonight, as well as our keys to the game.
The weather outside is frightful
As many people in the are realizing this morning, winter is here. The same is certainly true in Morgantown. By kickoff, the weather should be around 38 degrees, and the forecast is calling for some snow. This won’t be a sunny game on the west coast, and you should expect that to have some impact on the game.
There are two schools of thought with bad weather. Some think it benefits the defense, since poor weather often decreases the ability to throw the ball down the field. While that’s certainly true, I’ve found that poor field conditions often benefit the offense.
The nature of football is that the offense is moving and the defense is reacting. When Dede Westbrook makes a double-move, he knows what he’s doing before he does it. The cornerback, on the other hand, is having to react quickly to his moves and has a greater likelihood of slipping. The same is true in the running game and sometimes in the trenches. Still, it is harder to throw in bad weather, so don’t be surprised if both teams lean on the run a bit more today. Oklahoma is the 26th best rushing offense in terms of yards-per-game, and West Virginia is 34th. Both teams will want to take advantage of the conditions and run the ball when they can. It’s worth noting that when Samaje Perine broke the NCAA single-game rushing record, it was in the rain. The record he broke, which was set by Melvin Gordon a week earlier, was set in the snow. Both teams also rank in the top 50 in rushing defense (OU is #30 and WVU is #50), so both teams are fairly good running and against the run. Whichever team can set the tone on the offensive line to gain some key rushing yards could have a big advantage in this one.
Unfortunately for Oklahoma, I also think that strange conditions always benefit the underdog. If you play this game in a neutral-site dome, Oklahoma is probably the heavy favorite. When you take the game to Morgantown, that becomes less true, but OU is still favored. From that standpoint, anything that makes the game less predictable is a good thing for West Virginia. Snow games over the years have seen some wacky things happen. You never know.
An immovable object and an unstoppable force
West Virginia has the conference’s best overall defense to this point. They held Kansas State to 16 points, Texas Tech to 17 points, and Texas to just 20 points, just to name a few. They’re best known for their 3-3-5 defense, which is built to stop the spread offense with five defensive backs. Frankly, I’m surprised more teams haven't switched to this system given how well it’s worked for West Virginia. Some teams go to it occasionally (OU plays it often), but West Virginia probably leans on the formation the most in the conference.
Texas Tech has more total yards than Oklahoma, but OU is the clear winner in the Big 12 in terms of yards-per-play at 7.57. They’re in the top-30 in both rushing and passing yards. Their balance is their key, and it’s also a reason that the 3-3-5 may not work as well as it did against Texas Tech, for example. Oklahoma loves to run the football, and they do it very well with the combination of Perine and Joe Mixon. Oklahoma’s offense is as healthy as it’s probably going to get for the remainder of the season, so this game will be a full strength vs. strength matchup when the Sooners have the ball. I don’t know if Oklahoma can hold decent offenses to less than 24 points, and with a few mistakes that can easily go up to 38. The offense is probably going to need at least 40 points to feel comfortable in this one. We’ll see if they can get there.
Battle of the Day: Dede Westbrook vs. Rasul Douglas
Did you know that Westbrook has been torching defenses for most of the season? Of course you did, so let’s move on to Douglas.
As we mentioned here, Douglas has already recorded six interceptions to go with six more pass break-ups. The Mountaineers like to bring pressure, including some delayed blitzes. If they can get the pressure on Baker Mayfield that they want, we could see Mayfield toss some passes up for grabs. Lately, that means that Westbrook has been wide open and snags himself an easy touchdown. Last week, though, his second touchdown was certainly contested (though he still came down with the ball). Expect Douglas to be the man in charge of keeping Westbrook in control today.
The match-up is going to be important. Oklahoma uses Westbrook to take the top off a defense. When he’s open, he’s the most dangerous receiver in college football. Also, when a team knows they’re getting beat deep, they have to take men out of the box and defend the deep ball more aggressively. Against a team like Oklahoma, that means that the running game gets a lot easier.
If Douglas can hold his own, though, Oklahoma doesn’t really have another scary deep threat. Oklahoma can “dink and dunk” down the field, but it’s not what they want. Douglas is in charge of allowing the rest of his defense to focus on 20 yards, rather than the whole field. It’s going to matter.
Keys to the game
A. Take the crowd out of it
Night games in Morgantown are something else. The crowd is going to be into it. The weather is going to be bad. The players are going to be ready for the game. Oklahoma can change one of those things by starting fast. It was a key to the Baylor game last week, so I’ll understand if you accuse me of recycling this one, but frankly I think it’s the most important factor for Oklahoma.
The longer you allow West Virginia to stay in this game, the more dangerous they’ll become. The best way to win a road game is to get up early and big, making sure the only people riled up are your own teammates.
B. Win the turnover battle
West Virginia has forced sixteen turnovers so far this season. Oklahoma has just twelve. Neither team has a positive turnover margin, though (0, -3, respectively). This is a dangerous game for Oklahoma. West Virginia is ranked #14 by the College Football Playoff Committee, and most people think they’re underrated. To win this game, Oklahoma may need to take advantage of turnover opportunities.
Oklahoma has been dropping interceptions all season. Steven Parker dropped a possible pick-six against Texas Tech, and Jordan Thomas dropped a sure one last week against Baylor. Ahmad Thomas also dropped an interception last week, and the linebackers have dropped several.
Oklahoma needs to make the plays when they’re in position to make them. At some point they’re going to need to be able to capitalize on opponent’s mistakes. That day could be today. If Oklahoma wins the turnover battle, I think they’re a virtual lock to win the game. If not, it could go either way.