West Virginia does not control its own destiny in the Big 12 Conference race.
The Mountaineers still have everything to play for at 7 p.m. Saturday against No. 17 Oklahoma when a pair of teams with two league losses clash at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.
“We’re going on the road to play one of the top programs in the country. It’s on primetime TV again and at one of the top venues in the country to play, so our guys will be fired up,” fifth-year WVU head coach Neal Brown said.
The contest, which will air on FOX, pits two teams with 4-2 Big 12 records against one another. Texas and Oklahoma State are atop the Big 12 standings at 5-1, followed by five teams at 4-2 — WVU, Oklahoma, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State.
The Cowboys, Jayhawks and Wildcats will have each wrapped up conference games Saturday by the time the Mountaineers and Sooners square off, but the results of earlier contests won’t do anything to diminish the importance of the only Big 12 matchup this week between a pair of teams with winning records in league play.
“The main goal is trying to get to a conference championship and that’s still at stake,” said West Virginia tight end Kole Taylor, who leads the Mountaineers with 25 receptions. “We’re trying to win out. Bowl games are fun. It’s an extra game that you get and an extra month of practice and preparing. A nice bowl would be nice. The bigger picture is a conference championship, and if not that, then win each week and win out.”
Since suffering back-to-back Big 12 losses, West Virginia (6-3) has answered with consecutive victories against a pair of Big 12 newcomers — at Central Florida and against BYU.
The Mountaineers rushed for a combined 622 yards in those two games and have gotten improved play from lead running back CJ Donaldson, while true freshman tailback Jahiem White has proven himself more than capable of handling an expanded role.
Along with quarterback, Garrett Greene who sits between Donaldson and White on the list of the Mountaineers’ leading rushers this season, West Virginia possesses one of the more productive run games of any Big 12 team with an average of 218 yards per game on the ground.
Room to run won’t come freely against the Sooners, who rank fourth among 14 Big 12 teams in rush defense with an average of 134.2 yards per game surrendered.
While Greene has struggled to consistently complete throws and has one of the lower completion percentages of any FBS quarterback at 53 percent, the Mountaineers have displayed a plenty capable passing attack over the last month, with the junior signal-caller throwing for 1,001 yards and six touchdown with one interception over his last four outings.
“We should be closer to 55-60 percent. That’s the next step for Garrett,” Brown said. “He’s playing really well. He has to get his body aligned and he falls off to the left sometimes. He threw as good of a ball as you’ll see anybody throw all year to Preston [Fox against BYU] on the touchdown. Those two fundamental issues he has to correct and correct them all the time. The second thing is he has to take some of the heat off and throw a changeup every once in a while. A lot of fastballs, so we have to relax on that a little bit.”
The Mountaineers’ offensive line is the driving force behind the offensive success, and the unit had a strong showing against BYU despite playing without right tackle Doug Nester, who was injured a week earlier in Orlando.
Brown labeled Nester questionable but added “he could definitely play” during his weekly media session Monday.
The offensive line will look to measure up against a disruptive Oklahoma defense that Brown believes takes on the personality of OU head coach Brett Venables, a successful defensive coordinator for the Sooners and Clemson before becoming a head coach.
“His defensive work speaks for itself,” Brown said. “He has that program headed in the right direction.”
Linebacker Danny Stutsman is the team’s most productive defender with 73 tackles, 11.5 of which he’s recorded behind the line of scrimmage. However, Stutsman missed the Sooners’ loss at Oklahoma State last week after spraining an ankle a week earlier in a loss at Kansas.
Defensive lineman Ethan Downs has a team-best four sacks, while defensive backs Billy Bowman and Gentry Williams have four and three interceptions, respectively, for a unit that leads the Big 12 with 15 interceptions.
When the Sooners (7-2) have the ball, one of the fastest tempos in college football will be on display.
OU quarterback Dillon Gabriel has enjoyed an outstanding season to this point with 2,646 yards and 20 touchdowns against five interceptions. Gabriel has completed better than 71 percent of his 289 throws.
“Definitely their most important guy is their quarterback,” Brown said. “Dillon Gabriel’s played at a high level. He can run and has a really quick release. Kid’s won at UCF and at Oklahoma. A lot of respect for him.”
Wideouts Jalil Farooq, Drake Stoops and Nic Anderson are the Sooners’ most featured players when they go to the air. Farooq has 33 receptions for 547 yards and two touchdowns, while Stoops has six touchdown receptions to go with a team-best 52 receptions for 528 yards. Anderson’s eight touchdown receptions are a team-high and have come on only 20 catches, which have produced 497 yards for nearly 25 yards per catch.
Wideout Andrel Anthony was also enjoying a strong season with 27 receptions for 429 yards, but he was lost for the season due to an injury suffered October 7 against Texas.
Tailback Tawee Walker has a team-best 444 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 5.3 yards per carry and helps bring balance to a Sooners’ offense averaging 39.9 points to rank tops in the Big 12.
West Virginia’s defense has been up and down throughout 2023, struggling mightily in consecutive losses to Houston and Oklahoma State last month, but performing far better in its last two games.
Although the Mountaineers had difficulty preventing Central Florida from moving the ball, they forced four UCF turnovers to help offset the Knights’ yardage. A week ago, WVU put forth perhaps its best defensive showing this season when it prevented BYU from scoring until the game was well out of reach in the fourth quarter.
Linebacker Lee Kpogba’s 67 tackles are tops on WVU, while his 5.5 tackles for loss are second on the squad. No Mountaineer has more than three sacks on a unit that’s been more pass rush by committee and has a respectable 18 sacks.
On the back end, cornerback Beanie Bishop has been a welcome addition and has four interceptions and 17 pass breakups.
“We have to be more consistent, especially in November,” WVU safety Aubrey Burks said. “We have to be consistent through these next three games if we’re going to accomplish what we want to accomplish. Big thanks to our offense. When we’re not hot, they’re always on fire. They put points up and allow us to give them a chance.”
West Virginia is 1-7 all-time at Oklahoma and has yet to win in Norman since becoming a Big 12 member. To change that, the Mountaineers will need to hand the Sooners a third straight loss after they started 7-0.
In its most recent trip to OU, WVU lost 16-13. The Mountaineers were outscored 6-0 in the fourth quarter of that game, which ended on Gabe Brkic’s 30-yard field goal on the final play.
This will be the last matchup between the Mountaineers and Sooners for the foreseeable future as Oklahoma is leaving the Big 12 to join the Southeastern Conference after this season.
“We have a sour taste in our mouth from the last time we were there,” Brown said. “We got beat on a walk-off field goal. We felt like we were in control with an opportunity to win it. That’s really the motivation. I got asked about the schedule when it got released last week and I don’t really care. I don’t care that Texas or Oklahoma is leaving. I don’t mean that bad towards Texas or Oklahoma. It’s like, who’s in our league? The commissioner is going to take care of that. We’re positioned pretty well. Hopefully we don’t have to do back to backs on the west coast. Other than that, I don’t really care.”