Experienced defense springs big leaks in Big 12 opener

NORMAN, Okla. — West Virginia’s veteran defense believed it had ramped up for Big 12 action.

Saturday’s opening half proved otherwise.

A 28-yard uncontested touchdown catch by Sterling Shepard. A 35-yard unobstructed run for freshman Joe Mixon. A 17-yard scoring pass to the wide-open Mark Andrews.

These confounding moments saw Tony Gibson’s unit allow 24 first-half points to Oklahoma, which was one more point than West Virginia (3-1, 0-1) had ceded throughout its first three games.

“Just gave up too many plays early in the game,” Gibson said after what ultimately became a 44-24 loss. “The first half, I just don’t understand.”

Oklahoma ran only 58 plays, the product of scoring awfully quick on several occasions. The Sooners (4-0, 1-0) averaged 7.4 yards per snap, the most allowed by West Virginia since Waco 2013.

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops knew Baker Mayfield needed to make the Mountaineers pay for their risk-taking nature.

“The way (West Virginia) comes at you defensively, they’re going to get their plays,” Stoops said. “They pressure you and junk-up some of the run game. But then you have to get your big plays on them, and we did.”

Shepard turned a third-and-5 into disaster by turning around Terrell Chestnut on a double-move.

“They caught us in a pressure, double-moved us and had too much time to throw the ball,” Gibson said. “I don’t put that on the DB—that’s on the blitz. Now, could we have had a little better technique? Yeah.”

And the run by Mixon straight up the middle that ballooned the lead to 24-7?

“We knew it was a run. We knew what was coming, got (the call) out to the kids and we just couldn’t make a play,” Gibson said. “We got a guy cutoff who should’ve been right where it hit us. We got washed down in it too far, and they split us.”

In the third quarter came a few moments of recovery: WVU holding the Sooners to 26 yards over four series and forcing a fumble.

Suddenly the game was competitive again at 27-24, and Oklahoma was backed up at its 5. This looked like winning time, until the defense relapsed and watch Duron Neal streak behind the secondary on a 71-yard score.

It was the fourth touchdown drive that consumed five or less plays.

“We were in a Cover 3. They ran a screen-and-go and we had our eyes in the wrong place,” Gibson said.

Safety Karl Joseph made his nation-leading fifth interception and two more head-snapping hits, but Saturday was completely unsatisfying for the senior. The holes Georgia Southern and Maryland couldn’t exploit, Oklahoma did.

“Going against teams like we did early in the season, you can afford some mistakes. But against guys like (Oklahoma) you can’t. Not when you’re playing this kind of talent,” Joseph said.

“We knew the Big 12 was going to be more challenging than the nonconference. We knew we had to pick it up.”

The picking up now involves restoring confidence in time for a month that includes three more ranked opponents.

Oklahoma receiver Durron Neal races for a 71-yard touchdown during a 44-24 win over West Virginia on Saturday.

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