MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow stormed off Mountaineer Field alone, rocketing his helmet to the turf as the irksome strains of “Boomer Sooner” played in the distance.
Though others may not have demonstrated it as viscerally as Bigelow, the frustration from West Virginia’s 59-56 loss to Oklahoma was shared by many on the defense. In each of the final two regular-season games, only one measly stop separated West Virginia from playing for the Big 12 championship.
“We had to go out there and make one more stop,” said defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. “We couldn’t do it.”
Heading into the Oklahoma State game, West Virginia’s defense performed admirably. The Mountaineers were fresh off their most stifling performance in eight years, limiting TCU to minus-7 rushing yards. In Big 12 games, West Virginia had the league’s top scoring defense (22.6 points per game) and ranked second behind Iowa State in rushing defense (117.7 yards) and pass defense (252.9 yards).
At halftime in Stillwater, the Mountaineers were still holding that form. They had forced three turnovers and limited the Cowboys to 1-of-6 on third-down tries.
Then came 90 minutes of hell.
Since halftime in Stillwater, the Mountaineer defense was drummed for 76 points and 1,100 yards over the course of six quarters — an average of 183 yards and 12.6 points per quarter. (West Virginia surrendered 90 total points in those six quarters, but two touchdowns were scored by Oklahoma’s defense).
West Virginia was hurt by the void in the middle of the defense.
Backup Mike linebacker Shea Campbell – forced into the lineup when starter Dylan Tonkery got hurt before the Iowa State game – was injured in the second half at Oklahoma State. He could not go against Oklahoma, forcing third-stringer Zach Sandwisch to play the entire game.
“I found out 20 minutes before kickoff we didn’t have Shea Cambpell,” Gibson said. “I thought Zach stepped up as best as he could. But these injuries have just killed us.”
While Gibson is right, it’s also true that the Cowboys and Sooners found plenty of other places to exploit West Virginia’s defense. Nowhere was this more brutally obvious than on third and fourth downs.
Oklahoma State was 5-for-8 on third down in the second half, including conversions of third-and-20 and third-and-13 on the same drive. Oklahoma was so efficient that it rarely dealt with third downs, finishing 4-for-9. But on two of those failed attempts, the Sooners shoved in the dagger on fourth down.
The first was a crucial fourth-and-goal early in the fourth quarter.
Despite the ball being at the 2-yard line, no one was within nine yards of Oklahoma receiver Grant Calcaterra when he caught a go-ahead touchdown in the back of the end zone. Sandwisch and all-conference linebacker David Long collided on the play, allowing Calcaterra enough space to lay the foundation for a home if he were so inclined.
“If we had stopped them earlier in the game, and stopped them more consistently during the game, we never would have been put in that situation,” said defensive end Reese Donahue, the only defensive player to speak to reporters after the game.
The final fourth down permitted the Sooners to put the game to bed before West Virginia’s offense could respond with a game-winning drive in the final minutes. Lincoln Riley’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-5 from the WVU 40 showed he wasn’t concerned in the slightest about West Virginia’s defense.
“The way the game’s going, I just didn’t want to give them the ball back. And I felt like we had a great chance to get it,” Riley said. “And if we don’t get it, we’ve got three timeouts to use. I wanted us to be the last ones with the ball either way.”
Kyler Murray connected with CeeDee Lamb for a backbreaking eight-yard gain on the play despite the Mountaineers dropping eight defenders and rushing just three.
“I knew they thought we were going to pressure. I showed them pressure,” Gibson said. “We had a guy that was freed up to go get him. He didn’t get him. He just got lost, and they made the play.”
Murray was able to scramble around the pocket for a mind-boggling eight seconds before making the throw.
Donahue believes the die was cast before it ever happened. It wasn’t about one play that made the difference for the defense, but a whole boatload.
“One play doesn’t win or lose a football game,” Donahue said, relaying a message given to him by defensive line coach Bruce Tall. “It may not seem like it in the moment, but it’s really not how it works. Ultimately it’s a bunch of plays that pile up together that ultimately win or lose the game for you.”
For West Virginia’s defense, that pile of plays got far too big for a Big 12 title.