High School Football

Tackling the issue: Defense & coverage unit too soft on Sooners

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For a spell, this teetered on stunning.

Rushel Shell had just ducked his pads and trucked three defenders to stake West Virginia to a touchdown lead. He flexed his biceps toward the marching band. All of Mountaineer Nation sensed his strength.

The underdogs owned control and bedlam had come early for Oklahoma.

Then the game returned from a commercial break … and the Sooners returned a kick 100 yards.

Cue the leaky balloon sound effect.

“That’s a bad deal,” said coach Dana Holgorsen.

For the second time in eight days, a West Virginia opponent took back a kick to tie the game. The Mountaineers rebounded from it against Maryland. They were floored by it this time.

“Everything just went dead from there,” receiver Mario Alford admitted.

The Alex Ross return launched a 28-3 scoring run for the Sooners, who survived their vulnerable phase to eventually perform like the team everyone outside of Waco picked to win the Big 12.

And while being the favorite can feed conservative tendencies, credit Bob Stoops with taking the biggest gambles Saturday.

At 17-all with 3 minutes left in the half, Stoops ordered an onside kick that should’ve worked, and would’ve worked if not for coverage teamer Aaron Franklin inadvertently booting the bouncing ball a second time just as kicker Nick Hodgson was preparing to plop on it.

Stoops and play-caller Josh Heupel also sent quarterback Trevor Knight out wide on one play, reprising the Belldozer package for a third-and-short conversion that marked Blake Bell’s first carry of the season.

In another twist, Knight caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from receiver Duron Neal on a reverse throwback to the QB. That flash of creativity occurred on third-and-goal after West Virginia stopped two prior runs.

“They got us on that one,” said WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. “Just a good call.”

And why did Oklahoma make the call?

“We knew coming up here that we were going to have to bring out everything, because (West Virginia) is such a high-powered offense,” Neal said.

Contrast Oklahoma’s daring to the sacrificial inside handoff West Virginia tried on third-and-10 from the Sooners’ 18 during the third quarter. Andrew Buie’s subsequent 4-yard gain indicated Holgorsen was content to salvage three points despite the fact that a) the Mountaineers trailed by seven at the time, and b) the defense had yielded touchdowns to Oklahoma on its three preceding drives.

The WVU defense started strong but ultimately yielded far too much to Oklahoma, particularly on the ground. Those 301 rushing yards—13 more than even Alabama posted—represented a shocking regression when Gibson’s game plan sought to make Knight win the game with his spotty passing.

“We wanted to try to put the game into No. 9’s hands, and see if he could beat us throwing the football,” Gibson said. “But we weren’t able to accomplish that, because we couldn’t stop the run. It’s disappointing … (because) he was rattled a little bit early.”

If Oklahoma drops a game or two this season, Knight’s bouts of scatter-armed passing will most assuredly be at fault. In moving to 4-0, however, he was able to hand off 27 times in the second half while risking only nine throws.

“The wheels fell off,” Gibson said. “We gave up over 500 yards of offense. We couldn’t stop them, couldn’t tackle.

“We need to get the guys on track and understand what kind of defense we want to play here. It’s embarrassing to give up that many points and that many yards.”

That’s been a sad refrain for two-plus years—one unlikely to change much given the current defensive personnel. Thus, Clint Trickett and the offense will be challenged weekly to compensate by piling up points. If 40 is the new 30 in college football, the Mountaineers had better score 50.

For one half of Saturday night, WVU actually was on pace. But against elite teams such as Oklahoma, winning half the battle isn’t enough.

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