(Neal Brown pregame Zoom conference)
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A significant and welcome upgrade in competition awaits the Mountaineers Saturday when they face No. 15 Oklahoma State at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater. After a season-opening blowout win over FCS opponent Eastern Kentucky, WVU will face perhaps the most talented offensive team in the Big 12.
“It is important to see if we are ready to play against the top teams in our conference,” said WVU head coach Neal Brown. “I would argue that Oklahoma State is right up there against anybody. They probably have the most experience on both sides of the ball and on special teams returning.”
The Mountaineers face the unenviable task of having to game plan against multiple OSU quarterbacks. Redshirt sophomore Spencer Sanders is the returning starter but he suffered an ankle injury in the Cowboys’ season opener against Tulsa and his status for Saturday is unknown. Sanders was the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year in 2019. He tossed 16 touchdowns in 10 games and ran for 628 yards.
“If another guy plays, they’ll have to adjust and we will adjust” Brown said. “You plan for the strengths of what (Sanders) does and his dual-threat ability. If you need to adjust, you adjust.
“It is a little bit up in the air because they have a new play caller this year. It is a little bit of a guessing game regardless of who plays quarterback.”
“The athletic guys, the faster guys, the run-pass options guys are harder because they put guys in so much conflict at your second level and sometimes your third level,” said WVU defensive line coach Jordan Lesley.
“Emulating that guy in practice is really, really tough,” said WVU cornerbacks coach Jahmile Addae. “There’s no question that a dual-threat quarterback presents its own problems. He has been elite at both running and throwing the football.”
If Sanders is unable to play, true freshman Shane Illingworth could be next in line. Ethan Bullock was first off the bench for the Cowboys last week. But after he tossed an interception, Illingworth completed 4-of-5 passes for 79 yards and led a trio of fourth quarter scoring drives.
“Anytime you come in and your first play from scrimmage you throw a touch fade, which is as hard of a throw as there is in football, and he did it,” Brown said. “If he does play against us, the moment won’t be too big for him. They had success with their backup quarterback last year against us. Their team will have some confidence going into the game because of that.”
“It is like anything else, if you don’t have information you have to dig and try to get it in every avenue that you can in order to build a portfolio in which you feel good about using to defend him,” Addae said. “That is what we have done throughout the week.”
Running Back Chuba Hubbard (86 yards from scrimmage, rushing TD) and wideout Tylan Wallace (4 rec., 99 yds.) were somewhat held in check in the season opener. But that duo likely represents the best skill player combo in the Big 12.
“(Hubbard) gets a lot of publicity for his rushing attack, which he should,” Brown said. “But he beat us last year with his receiving skills. That says a lot about him.”
“It just stretches you so much trying to figure out where you put your emphasis because you can’t focus on one spot,” Lesley said. “You have to pick your spots. That’s the best way to put it. And you are probably never going to be right a hundred percent of the time. With their talent level, speed, running back, quarterback and receiver, it makes it tough.”
Many teams in the Big 12 employ uptempo offenses and the Cowboys could utilize it the most throughout the conference.
“They tempo for a reason, they want to catch you off guard,” Addae said. “They want to catch your eyes in the wrong spots. Our emphasis has been to go through your every-play ritual as fast as you can. That means get the call and get aligned, know your assignment, get your eyes and your keys and play ball.”
“Coaches help prepare us a lot during the week with tempo situations throughout practice and things like that,” said WVU defensive lineman Jeffrey Pooler. “And then we just work during team drills echoing the calls, getting lined up right and getting to the ball.”
“Every time they got an explosive play (last year), they tempo us,” said WVU safety Tykee Smith. “We know what is going to happen going into the game. So we have base calls going into a tempo situation so everyone can be on the same page.”
While Oklahoma State’s offense struggled to find traction against Tulsa, their defense yielded just seven points and did not allow a third down conversion in a dozen attempts.
“They are underrated from the midway point of the season last year up until now,” Brown said. “They create a lot of negative plays.”
“It is a huge test for our guys in week two of a season,” said WVU offensive coordinator/receivers coach Gerad Parker. “It is going to be very interesting to see the battle go on. That’s the fun part of the junction point and the fun part of being able to play this game. Those will be great matchups and it will be interesting to see how those go throughout the game.”
West Virginia will have their top two tight ends on the depth chart back for this game. T.J. Banks and Mike O’Laughlin were two of eleven players suspended for the season opener after violating team rules.
“Certainly you feel better about those guys being able to do a few more things, which will allow you to be a little bit more creative,” Parker said. “Certainly we are being respectful of what those two guys (Charles Finley & Jackson Knipper) did last week, stepping up and filling in. We are certainly proud of their effort and what they did. We’ll continue to grow that and feel good about who we are at that tight end position.”