For the second time this season, the Mountaineers seized a top-ten ranking only to stumble. This Saturday in Stillwater, West Virginia’s loss was particularly heart-breaking. The Mountaineers had national attention, and they pushed out to a sizeable 31-14 lead at halftime. But as the second half wore on, West Virginia relinquished its lead. If the Mountaineers still hope to play for a Big XII title or in a New Year’s Six Bowl, they must get a win this Friday. In short, the Sooners loom large for the Mountaineers.
Oklahoma State Reaction
“A tale of two halves” has been a running theme throughout this season. Saturday’s game against Oklahoma State simply punctuated that narrative. Through the first half, the Mountaineers surrendered only 14 points and 205 yards to the Cowboys. Defensive Coordinator Tony Gibson‘s unit looked sharp. The defense looked disciplined, and they were attacking. In the waning moments of the first half, Kenny Bigelow jawed with Taylor Cornelius. We can only guess what happened to provoke Bigelow, but we know who won the exchange. The very next play, Keith Washington picked off an errant Cornelius throw. It was the Cowboys’ third turnover of the half.
The second half, however, featured an energetic Cowboys team that kept chipping away at the Mountaineers’ lead. Oklahoma State put 14 points on the scoreboard in the third quarter alone. And the Mountaineers surrendered over 200 yards and 21 points in the final frame. Meanwhile, the offense stalled managing 10 points on six second-half drives. Arguably, the Mountaineers still should have won this game, as the referees held their flags on two clear holding penalties in the end zone on the final play of the game. See for yourself:
— WVSports.com (@WVSportsDotCom) November 18, 2018
But, as Will Grier put it, the Cowboys came out ready to play in the second half, and the Mountaineers did not. It happens sometimes. It is disappointing when it does. But that is football.
Sooners Loom Large
Perhaps the most upsetting part of the Mountaineers’ loss is the fact that it shuts the door on any outside hopes West Virginia had to crash the playoffs. Those chances, however, were slim. The selection committee made that clear. The loss also reduces the Mountaineers’ margin of error for their other two team goals to zero. But as we wrote last week, the Mountaineers’ clinching a spot in the Big XII Championship game would be decided on the gridiron. And it will be decided on a Friday night in Morgantown. If West Virginia wins, they play for the league title and a New Years’ Six bowl appearance. If they lose, they can still finish the season with a decent bowl and a nine-win season (that was cut short by one game).
Oklahoma is a known quantity. The path to the Big XII title always runs through the Sooners. This year is no different. And, as always, Oklahoma has replaced one elite quarterback (Baker Mayfield) with another (Kyler Murray), and its offense has not missed a beat. As a result, the Sooners feature the number one offense in the country.
Murray is a Heisman candidate who has shredded defenses with both his arm and his legs. And he leads a well-balanced offense that features two backs in Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks who both average over six yards per carry. Marquise Brown, CeeDee Lamb, and Lee Morris are as dangerous a receiving trio as any other unit in the country. And the offensive line has been steady enough to pave the way for a team average of just under seven yards per carry while maintaining a solid pocket for their quarterback.
Defensively, however, the Sooners continue to struggle. They have given up 40 or more points in four of their last six. And opposing teams are winning the turnover battle, too. The Sooners are also faring poorly on critical downs, surrendering first downs 45% of the time. The question for the Sooners, as it has been the past several seasons, is whether the defense can do just enough to let the offense outscore their opponent.
Fortunately for the Mountaineers, the defense has become increasingly opportunistic over the second half of the season. They have taken advantage of mistakes and have flipped the turnover margin to the Mountaineers’ favor. And the defense has been particularly ferocious after big losses and sub-par performances. The Mountaineers also feature the type of high-flying offense that has given the Sooners trouble. The defense simply won’t be able to stop this game from being the shootout these two teams have been involved in since West Virginia joined the Big XII. But they will do enough to keep the Sooners from prevailing. West Virginia wins this one in the last quarter, 48-40.
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