Will new-look Sooners continue to ride Perine against Mountaineers?

Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine celebrates after one of his four touchdowns against West Virginia in 2014.


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia hasn’t forgotten the battering Samaje Perine delivered last season. And Lincoln Riley hasn’t forgotten to feed Oklahoma’s workhorse even as the new coordinator installs a crimson-and-cream Air Raid.

Where and how often Perine is utilized Saturday may determine which top 25 team emerges undefeated from one of the Week 5’s most intriguing, and overlooked, games.

Until the No. 23 Mountaineers (3-0) prove capable of halting the run, you’d think Oklahoma’s play sequence would go “Perine left. Perine right. Perine middle. Repeat.” But Riley was hired specifically to speed up the tempo and jazz up the pass game, ambitions that don’t sync with the powerball attack that propelled Perine to 242 yards on 34 carries in Morgantown last year.

“That was the worst beating we took as a defense all year long,” said West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. “It was a street fight and we didn’t show up. They big-boy’d us.

“But they haven’t shown that yet (this year). Now it’s more zone-schemed, like what everybody else in the league is running.”

Perine’s production has slowed from his unbelievable freshman campaign—6.5 yards per carry dipping to 4.7, and he has only two rushing touchdowns through three games after cashing in 21 last year. The simple explanation lies with Oklahoma’s increased reliance on the pass and an offensive line trying to replace two NFL-drafted tackles.

The Sooners (3-0) did damage against Akron (41-3) and Tulsa (52-38), wins sandwiched around a 31-24 double-overtime squeaker against Tennessee that was simultaneously thrilling and worrisome. All four Oklahoma touchdowns came in the final 8:20 of regulation and overtime.

“I like the direction it’s going in, but let’s face it, we’ve had some spotty moments too,” Bob Stoops said. “We can’t forget the first three quarters at Tennessee. It has to be more consistent and keep improving if we’re going to have a chance at a really good year.”

Riley, as a quarterback-turned-GA at Texas Tech, used to bounce ideas off Dana Holgorsen, variations they knew wouldn’t fly within the pass-pass-pass scheme favored by coach Mike Leach but ones that might someday take root at other career stops. Now those careers intersect in Norman, with Holgorsen telling stories about Riley’s wife working as his nanny years ago.

Riley made a leap during five seasons as a play-caller at East Carolina, where he worked alongside West Virginia cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell, another member of the Texas Tech staff.

“He’s Mike Leach to a T,” Mitchell said this week. “He wants to throw the ball instead of running it. He thinks a 4-yard pass is as good as a 4-yard run.

“At East Carolina we didn’t have the big powerful downhill running backs or the lineman who could come across and affect the power running game. But he set all kinds of records at East Carolina—did things that no one else has done there before.”

Stats reveal Riley hasn’t gone pass-happy through his first three games at Oklahoma. Petrine is simply too good to ignore and Baker Mayfield’s scrambles alter the run/pass numbers. Yet the Sooners are more aerial-inclined than 2014, when Perine became the focus.

Digging back further to Riley’s tenure at ECU, he never had a majority-run offense, though he wasn’t so out-of-kilter as Leach. Twice, in 2010 and 2011, the Pirates threw it 64 percent of the time. In 2012, Riley’s most balanced season at ECU, the pass/run ratio was 51/49.

The threat of Perine—not to mention the endless reminders provided through cutups of last year’s game—has West Virginia expecting another heavy run dose. After all, this week Sooners lineman Nila Kasitati recalled sensing how the Mountaineers started to wilt during last year’s second half.

“As much as we were doing a pretty good job of making holes for him, he was breaking tackles and gaining more yards than he should have.”

If Perine remains a focal point, the 2015 West Virginia defense aims to show more toughness.

“It showed that they were more physical than us last year,” said nose tackle Kyle Rose. “The testament is whether or not they’re going to be more physical than us this year.”

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