Stedman Bailey beat Oklahoma’s Aaron Colvin (14) and Tony Jefferson on a 40-yard score with 2:52 left Saturday. The Sooners rallied, however, for a 50-49 victory. (Joe Sadlek/All-Pro Photography)
Examining the ups and downs, the dividends and downticks, from West Virginia’s 50-49 loss to Oklahoma:
First-half Geno Smith was shaky and mistake-prone (10-of-20 with one TD and two interceptions). Second-half Geno Smith was Heisman-like (10-of-15 for three touchdowns and no picks). Twice in the final 7:12 he connected with Stedman Bailey on go-ahead touchdowns, and he’ll never throw two more pinpoint passes. The first, a 7-yard back-corner fade route put WVU ahead 43-38. The next was a 40-yard bomb off play-action that staked the Mountaineers to a 49-44 lead.
In throwing for 320 yards total, Smith also made a terrific 2-point pass that Bailey couldn’t hang on to. He ran four times for 52 yards, highlighted by a 24-yard scramble.
Running backs (UP)
After watching WVU average less than 3 yards a carry in the previous four losses, Dana Holgorsen and his offensive staff installed a package utilizing slot receiver Tavon Austin at tailback, the position at which he flourished at Dunbar High in Baltimore.
The move looked brilliant as Austin set the West Virginia single-game rushing record with 344 yards on 21 carries.
“It probably took me about two or three plays to get (the instincts) back,” Austin said, but in actuality, it really only took one. After his first carry netted nothing thanks to penetration by OU’s Casey Walker, Austin’s next four runs went for 9, 5, 6 and 31 yards — and that was just an appetizer. He later ripped off runs of 74, 56, 54 and 47 yards, hitting the holes so quickly that Oklahoma only tackled him behind the line once, a minus-1 yard carry on which Austin slipped down.
“We knew we had to put the ball in the hands of our best player, and right now he’s that,” said WVU running backs coach Robert Gillespie. “The next two weeks we’ll continue to find ways to ride him on in.”
Austin also had four catches for 82 yards — all of those in the first half before he worked almost exclusively at tailback in the second half.
When Austin wasn’t making his dazzling highlights, the rest of the West Virginia running game didn’t produce much. Andrew Buie worked hard on an 18-yard run and lunged in for a fourth-and-1 touchdown, but the sophomore finished with only 48 yards on 16 carries. Dustin Garrison gained 11 on four rushes.
With Austin relocated to the backfield, Bailey became Smith’s primary target and caught 13 passes for 205 yards and four touchdowns (padding his national lead in the latter category). Bailey’s route-running was crisp and he made a particularly difficult 35-yard catch amid three OU defenders to start a 97-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. He looks completely recovered from an ankle injury that bugged him for three weeks, and it showed at the end of that long drive when he bulled through Sooners defensive end David King to finish off a 4-yard touchdown catch.
Bailey’s lone mistake? Failing to bring in a tough, diving catch on a 2-point conversion with 11:22 left that could have altered the rest of the game. “No excuses on that — I’ve got to have that,” Bailey said.
Outside of WVU’s two Biletnikoff candidates, only three receivers caught passes: Jordan Thompson (1 for 11 yards), J.D. Woods (1 for 3 yards) and … drumroll please … Cody Clay made his first career reception, a 19-yarder.
Offensive line (UP)
Putting a month of inconsistent performances behind them, WVU’s linemen created big running lanes that sprang Austin into the secondary, where he did tremendous damage. Such was the case on Austin’s 74-yarder early in the third quarter: Left tackle Quinton Spain waylaid a blitzing cornerback while guard Josh Jenkins and center Joe Madsen sealing off the inside.
The group played penalty-free football while allowing zero sacks and only a few quarterback pressures. The Mountaineers averaged 9.7 yards per rush and compiled 778 yards of offense, the most ever surrendered by a Sooners defense. That’s a stellar night by any measure.
Curtis Feigt seems to have entrenched himself at right tackle, though he nearly allowed an end zone sack when he was tripped in his pass-protection backpedal by teammate Cody Clay.
One major deduction: WVU got no push on a third-quarter fourth-and-1 try at the OU 14.
Defensive Line (NEUTRAL)
Oklahoma, which entered averaging 176 yards rushing per game and 5.2 per carry, gained only 108 against WVU with a 3.5-yard average. Damien Williams’ 48-yard touchdown jolt late in the first half was the only real breakdown in the Mountaineers’ run defense.
The defensive front also hung tough against OU’s “Belldozer” package. Blake Bell failed to convert on 3-of-5 short-yardage tries, and actually lost yards twice. One of those was a third-and-1 in the final 30 seconds, when WVU’s Jorge Wright foiled the play with penetration. That temporarily kept the Mountaineers in the lead before Landry Jones saved the Sooners with a fourth-and-3 touchdown to Kenny Stills.
The top performers were nose tackle Shaq Rowell (five tackles) and defensive end Will Clarke, who made 2.5 tackles for loss and flushed Jones out of the pocket on the play that led to his lone interception. Freshman Christian Brown forced OU’s other turnover by stripping Damien Williams.
Once again, the D-line didn’t mount much of a pass rush, which helped Jones rack up an OU-record 554-yard passing night.
Star linebacker Terence Garvin made seven tackles, including a big stop on Belldozer’s first carry. Yet Garvin also contributed to one of the unit’s low moments, allowing receiver Jalen Saunders to split him and Sam linebacker Isaiah Bruce on a short pass that became a 76-yard touchdown.
Bruce suffered an unspecified right leg injury on the Sooners’ first drive, and though he returned on the next series, he made only two tackles and missed at least twice that number. He also dropped a potential interception that would have preserved WVU’s 43-38 lead in the final six minutes.
Nick Kwiatkoski subbed for the injured Bruce at the end of OU’s opening possession and saw Sooners fullback Trey Millard catch a 4-yard touchdown in his zone area.
Jared Barber, the starter at Will, made seven tackles. Shaq Pettaway registered two stops and two diving pass breakups, but he was stalemated near the gap that led to Williams’ second-quarter breakaway run.
Redshirt freshman Terrell Chestnut made his first start at boundary cornerback, opposite sophomore Ishmael Banks, who started only his third game at field cornerback. That’s an awfully young combo to challenge the Sooner’s 15th-ranked passing offense, but considering WVU entered with the nation’s lowest-ranked pass defense, what did Joe DeForest have to lose.
Two Oklahoma receivers eclipsed the 100-yard mark: the junior Saunders caught seven passes for 123 and senior Penn State transfer Justin Brown hauled in six for 112. Freshman Sterling Shepard also gained 97 yards on four catches, but it was OU junior Kenny Stills who made the largest impact, catching four touchdowns among his 10 catches for 97 yards. Stills caught three of those scores against man coverage by Banks, including the game-winner with 24 seconds to play.
Chestnut battled Brown to break up a first-quarter pass at the goal line, but he also missed a tackle that led to Shepard’s 52-yard gain. Pat Miller, the senior who Chestnut replaced in the starting lineup, saw limited action off the bench. Brodrick Jenkins, the junior who started six games at Banks’ spot before a knee injury, made a crucial interception by out-jumping Stills on a deep pass at the WVU 3-yard line.
West Virginia’s top two tacklers were safeties: Karl Joseph and Darwin Cook with 10 each. Though Cook didn’t start for the third consecutive game, his playing time indicated he has returned to the good graces of coaches. He appeared to take himself a few steps out of position on Williams’ 46-yard touchdown, giving the OU tailback a clear path to the end zone after bursting through the line.
Joseph delivered two of the night’s biggest hits — belting Saunders on OU’s first series, then picking up and planting Brown to temporarily prevent a first down on the Sooners’ last drive.
Special teams (DOWN)
Tyler Bitancurt made his only field-goal attempt, a chip shot from 19 yards, but hooked a third-quarter PAT that forced West Virginia to try a pair of 2-point conversions in the fourth quarter. Both 2-pointers failed and Bitancurt’s miss obviously loomed large in one-point loss.
Bitancurt punted only twice, for an average 38.5 yards, both resulting in fair catches.
WVU’s kick-coverage unit was steady until the last one, when Brennan Clay got loose on a 46-yarder to give OU a short field for its game-winning touchdown drive.
The Mountaineers’ return units were a nonfactor, save for three holding penalties by three different players on three separate kick returns. Though Austin racked up 146 kick-return yards, he needed eight runbacks to do it (only an 18.2 average).
Given the level of competition, this was the Mountaineers’ best offensive showing of the season. The Big Three of Smith, Austin and Bailey were utilized to their full potential and benefited from each other. (Watch WVU’s final score, for instance, when Bailey comes open deep on a 40-yard pass after the play-action to Austin forced Oklahoma safety Tony Jefferson to take a couple false steps.)
Defensively, well, there seems to be improvement in stretches, but the Mountaineers twice failed to preserve leads in late-game situations. Oklahoma staged touchdown drives of 79 and 54 yards in the last seven minutes.
“I know we gave up 50, and that’s awful,” DeForest said. “But if you look at spurts during the game, we played really, really well.”
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