A pair of Big 12 rivals coming off two very different 2020 season openers is set to open league play Saturday. The West Virginia Mountaineers struggled through a rebuilding year in Neal Brown's first season as head coach, finishing 5-7. WVU took the first step toward a Year 2 bounce, and exploded offensively in a 56-10 victory over FCS member Eastern Kentucky two weeks ago. However, the next task will be much tougher: a date with the Oklahoma State Cowboys in Stillwater.
Oklahoma State finished 8-5 in 2019 after a 24-21 loss to Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl. The Pokes entered 2020 with bigger goals — especially when All-American running back Chuba Hubbard and wide receiver Tylan Wallace decided to put their professional careers on hold for another year. A 16-7 win over Tulsa may not have been the start we expected from a potential conference title contender, but a win's a win, and the Cowboys can now turn their attention to more important matters.
West Virginia at Oklahoma State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 26, at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Oklahoma State -7
When West Virginia Has the Ball
The Mountaineers have looked like a different team since Jarret Doege took over as quarterback. Doege, who transferred from Bowling Green after two seasons as a starter for the Falcons, appeared in four games (three starts) last season. Doege provided a lift and led WVU to a pair of upset wins, and nearly knocked off Oklahoma State as well in a 20-13 loss in Morgantown. He completed 19 of 25 pass attempts for 228 yards and three touchdowns in the win over EKU. Sam James led the way with five receptions and 72 yards. James, Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Leddie Brown were each on the receiving end of a Doege touchdown.
Perhaps more promising than Doege's passing performance was the running back duo of Brown and Alec Sinkfield. Brown's 367 rushing yards led a pathetic rushing attack that ranked 128th in yards per game (73.25) and 129th in yards per carry (2.63) and rushing touchdowns (7) a year ago. But he picked up 123 yards on the ground against the Colonels and doubled his 2019 touchdown total by crossing the goal line twice. Sinkfield matched Brown's totals exactly with 123 rushing yards and two scores, and the Mountaineers emptied the bench to the tune of 329 yards, five TDs and 6.45 yards per attempt on the ground.
Oklahoma State has a veteran defense that stepped up when its big-name offense stalled against Tulsa. The Cowboys allowed just 112 rushing yards and 3.5 yards per carry in Week 1, so West Virginia will be challenged to build upon its strong start. The return of 11 suspended players, including wide receiver T.J. Simmons and offensive linemen Junior Uzebu and Chase Behrndt should help the Mountaineers, however.
When Oklahoma State Has the Ball
Quarterback Spencer Sanders hasn't built the nationwide name recognition of Chuba Hubbard or Tylan Wallace, but when Sanders went down with an ankle injury early against Tulsa, the disruption to the Cowboys offense was noticeable. Sanders completed both of his pass attempts for 23 yards, and on the Pokes' 17-play opening drive, which ended with a field goal. But he was lost for the game after fumbling on the first play of the second drive.
Junior college transfer Ethan Bullock was 8-for-13 passing for 41 yards and an interception in relief, but eventually gave way to true freshman Shane Illingworth, who led Oklahoma State on its first touchdown drive of the season. Hubbard scored from three yards out to give the Cowboys a 10-7 lead early in the fourth quarter. He finished the game with 93 yards on 27 carries and LD Brown added 63 rushing yards on nine attempts. Wallace, who not only failed to record a catch in the first half but wasn't even targeted, led the team with four catches and 94 yards, including a 36-yard reception that was the longest play of the day, and set up the touchdown.
It was an ugly start for Oklahoma State, and we don't yet know Sanders' status for Saturday. He was reportedly in a walking book early in the week, with the goal to return to practice Wednesday. If Sanders can't go, Illingworth would be the favorite to replace him atop the depth chart.
West Virginia played solid but unspectacular defense in 2019, finishing 73rd nationally in scoring defense (28.8 ppg), 74th in total defense (399.3 ypg), and 52nd in yards allowed per play (5.48). The unit started strong in 2020, allowing 4.2 yards per play and 2.34 yards per rushing attempt. Four sacks contributed to the success as well.
Even with Sanders out or limited, Oklahoma State is a different animal. Hubbard is a Heisman Trophy contender, and Wallace is one of the best receivers in college football. On offense, Doege, Brown and Sinkfield will also face much tougher competition.
West Virginia showed improvement late in 2019 and carried that momentum into the new season with an impressive win over an FCS opponent. Meanwhile, the Pokes appeared very vulnerable. Nevertheless, expect Oklahoma State to bounce back and begin their Big 12 championship quest with a victory.
Prediction: Oklahoma State 35, West Virginia 24
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