It isn’t that unusual in some of the major college conferences for intra-league action to begin as early as week two of the season, or even in the opening week. This weekend in the Southeastern Conference, for example, two very good teams from that conference, sixth-ranked South Carolina and 12th-ranked Georgia, will square off in Athens, Ga., in just the second week of the 2013 college football season.
But for a conference football game to be played this early in the season is very much the exception in the Big 12, and in the case of Oklahoma, one of the long-time elite programs in the sport, this Saturday will be the earliest date in history that the Sooners have played a game against a conference opponent.
The Oklahoma-West Virginia matchup on Saturday night in Norman stands out as the game of the week in the Big 12 in Week 2, as nine of the 10 conference schools are in action. And the odds are very good that eight of the nine Big 12 teams will come away with wins this weekend. Only the loser of the contest between the Sooners and the Mountaineers should mar what otherwise should be an undefeated week for Big 12 teams.
The all-time series between the Sooners and Mountaineers comprises only five games. Several of those games, however, have been especially memorable, including the shootout last season at West Virginia, which was won by Oklahoma in the waning minutes of the game, 5o-49. The game produced a combined 1,440 yards of total offense (778 by West Virginia and 662 by Oklahoma), including an incredible 572 all-purpose yards by Mountaineer wide-receiver and return specialist Tavon Austin.
This year’s game in Norman is expected to be very different from last season’s giant offensive display. On one hand, the key contributors to West Virginia’s explosive offensive attack a year ago – quarterback Geno Smith, all-purpose star Austin and wide receiver Stedman Bailey – have departed, leaving a big hole in the Mountaineers’ consistency and productivity on offense.
The impact of the change in personnel on offense was highly noticeable in West Virginia’s narrow seven-point win a week ago over William & Mary. “Offensively, we’re still trying to find an identity,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said this week. Junior Paul Millard is the new starter at quarterback in 2013. In the Mountaineers’ home opener, he completed 19 of 25 for 235 yards and a touchdown.
This week at Oklahoma, Millard will be going up against a revamped OU defense that yielded only 128 yards passing in the Sooners’ 34-0 win last week over the University of Louisiana-Monroe. The Sooners D was even stingier against the rush, giving up just 28 yards on the ground and 168 yards of total offense against the Warhawks of ULM, the same team that upset Arkansas at Fayetteville a year ago and came close to doing the same to both Auburn and Baylor.
Defensively, it’s one of the better games that we’ve had in a long, long time,” said OU head coach Bob Stoops in his postgame comments last weekend.
For most of the Bob Stoops era at OU, the Sooners have employed the pass as their primary weapon on offense, set up by the running game. Although Stoops says the Sooners still want to and will pass the ball, but it appears OU will rely more on a strong running game, with quite a bit of depth at the running back position this season, to spark its potent offense, using a steady ground attack to set up its aerial game.
Against ULM, Oklahoma produced 305 yards on the ground and just 128 passing yards, which represents a big shift from the Sooners’ typical offensive splits in the Big 12 era.
A year ago, West Virginia’s defense was one of the worst in the Big 12, and especially so against the pass, where WVU ranked next to last in the conference, yielding an average of 312 yards per game. The Mountaineers also gave up a league-worst 38 points per game in 2012. The defense should be better for Holgorsen’s team this year, with 15 players with starting experience returning on that side of the ball. The 17 points scored by William & Mary was the third fewest against West Virginia in the past two years. Of course, William & Mary is not on the same level as the Big 12 teams, which is why this week’s test against the Sooners will be a lot more telling of what the rest of the season will be like for Holgorsen & Co.
“I know it (Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium) gets pretty loud, but we’re excited. I love the challenges,” WVU quarterback Millard was quoted as saying this week in the West Virginia student newspaper. “They have a great team. It’s going to be a lot of fun, because a lot of people don’t believe in us, and we just want to go out there and prove people wrong.”
Some interesting side notes to this game. West Virginia pounded OU with over 500 yards of total offense and shocked the No. 3-ranked Sooners 48-28 in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl (in the 2007 season). Also, the last time Oklahoma hosted West Virginia in Norman, in 1982, the Mountaineers came away with a 41-27 victory over Barry Switzer’s Sooners.
Three Things to Watch for in the OU-West Virginia Game
- OU true-freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, who won the starting job over junior Blake Bell, over and underthrew a number of his passes in the Sooners’ season-opening game last week, completing just 11 of 28 pass attempts for 86 yards. You can chalk some of that up to first-game freshman jitters in front of a capacity home crowd. Knight did gain 112 yards running the ball, but If he has a similar passing performance against West Virginia, it will be a much closer game than it was against overmatched Louisiana-Monroe.
- The Oklahoma defense, which last season was one of the worst in coach Bob Stoops’ time at OU, was on fire in the Sooners’ win over ULM. Considered to be a big concern coming into this season, with so many defensive starters lost from last year’s team, how well the Sooner D performs this week against a more formidable opponent, and in a conference game for both teams, will be.be the primary determinant of how close this game will be.
- West Virginia is 23-10 since 1980 and 2-0 under Dana Holgorsen in opening road games. Moreovoer, the Mountaineers are 67-7 since 2002 in games in which they win the turnover battle.
Prediction: Oklahoma 38, West Virginia 14
Other Big 12 Picks In Week 2
Oklahoma State 45 @ University of Texas – San Antonio 10
Buffalo 16 @ Baylor 51
Louisiana-Lafayette 20 @ Kansas State 42
Stephen F. Austin 13 @ Texas Tech 52
Texas 34 @ Brigham Young 27
South Dakota 21 @ Kansas 31
Southeastern Louisiana 10 @ TCU 49
Last Week: 7-2