The coronavirus pandemic scuttled last year's matchup between the West Virginia Mountaineers and Oklahoma Sooners. This season, they're kicking off the Big 12 slate against one another to make up for lost time.
For the Mountaineers, it could be their last chance to beat the Sooners as members of the same conference. OU has defeated WVU every time the two have teams faced off since the Eers joined the Big 12, and only two of the eight games have been close (decided by seven points or less). With Oklahoma declaring its intentions to leave for the SEC, time is running short for West Virginia to knock off the league's reigning champ.
Here's what to watch when the two conference rivals meet in Norman on Saturday night.
West Virginia at No. 4 Oklahoma
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 25 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Oklahoma -16.5
When West Virginia Has the Ball
The story of the West Virginia offense during the team's 2-1 start has been overcoming self-inflicted wounds. The Eers have lost a total of seven turnovers already in 2021. They include three interceptions by senior quarterback Jarret Doege.
In Doege's defense, he has thrown six touchdowns, three of which have gone to wide receiver Sam James. WVU has counted on that aerial production to keep its offense moving. The Eers rank 83rd in the country in rushing average, gaining 3.9 yards per carry.
Protecting Doege and occasional running QB Garrett Greene may be WVU's top priority on Saturday. The leaky WVU offensive line has allowed seven sacks through three games, the Oklahoma defense has already tallied 13 sacks. Mountaineers head coach Neal Brown and his staff will need to come up with a strategy to neutralize that pass rush.
When Oklahoma Has the Ball
For a program long viewed as being on the cutting edge of offensive strategy, OU has struggled to develop any consistency this season. Most noticeably, the Sooners haven't connected on deep shots. In a sign of its inability to push the ball down the field, OU has averaged 7.8 yards per pass attempt through three games. That is down from 9.6 for all of 2020.
The return of Kennedy Brooks and the arrival of Tennessee transfer Eric Gray have helped pick up some of the slack. The two running backs together are averaging six yards per carry. Head coach Lincoln Riley seems determined to keep the duo from taking too much punishment early in the year, but he will eventually have to give them more work to ensure his offense doesn't stall out.
West Virginia's defense is predicated on speed and disruption. The Mountaineers' ability to get pressure from odd angles will test the chemistry of OU's offensive line, which has played ragged football at times in the first three games. When the Sooners run the ball, look for the Mountaineers to focus on shooting gaps to gum up action in the backfield, rather than trying to go blow-for-blow with OU's big blockers up front.
The big question around Norman right now: Is Lincoln Riley holding something back? Now in his fifth season as OU's head coach, Riley seems to prefer keeping his game plans vanilla early in the season. In fact, there's no guarantee he'd even reveal any new wrinkles in the fourth game of the year. The fans in the stands at Gaylord Family Memorial Stadium would likely prefer that he open up the playbook after watching the Sooners scrape by in two of three games — assuming he hasn't opened it up already.
Meanwhile, the Mountaineers are coming off an emotional win last week over longtime rival Virginia Tech. Will motivation come into play for the visiting team?
The outcome of this game for WVU may hinge on more than just motivation, though. Nebraska offered future OU opponents a blueprint for contending with the Sooners and their dynamic playmakers on offense by playing loose zone coverage. After all, one of the knocks on Sooners quarterback Spencer Rattler has been that he lacks the patience to take what defenses give him.
Ultimately, the Eers need to force OU into long drives and kicking field goals. Given the quality of the Sooners' defense to this point, the Mountaineers shouldn't count on putting many points on the scoreboard this weekend.
Prediction: Oklahoma 35, West Virginia 14
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— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is the founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.