10 Questions, 10 Answers About the West Virginia Mountaineers
No. 4 Oklahoma is set to open up Big 12 play on Saturday night when they welcome in the 2-1 West Virginia Mountaineers at Gaylord Family - Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.
For the Sooners, it is another test after a couple of underwhelming wins in the early part of the season. West Virginia, meanwhile, comes in fresh off of a nice win over a top-15 Virginia Tech team and will be playing with confidence.
Many are pondering if this will be the week Oklahoma puts together a complete performance, or if it will be more of the same issues that plagued them against Tulane and Nebraska.
To get a better perspective on the Mountaineers, we enlisted the help of someone who covers them on a regular basis.
SI Sooners asked Julia Mellett of West Virginia Sports Now ten questions about West Virginia and the Mountaineers-Sooners matchup on Saturday. Here is what she had to offer:
Q: In your mind, what was the biggest difference for West Virginia in bouncing back from the Week 1 loss to Maryland to turning around and knocking off a top-15 Virginia Tech team just two weeks later?
A: The Maryland loss was a demoralizing start to Neal Brown's third season. This Mountaineer team could have easily solidified a 3-0 record heading into Norman. Instead, Neal Brown's roster perpetuated a road loss record that now stands at 0-5. It came down to the offense not converting in College Park, Md. Comparatively, the WVU offense had only 48 yards rushing against the Terrapins. Two weeks later, that number skyrocketed to 173 against No. 15 Virginia Tech. The Mountaineer offensive line played like swiss cheese against UMD, allowing the Terrapin defense to pummel Doege into the turf three times and force two interceptions among his 286 passing yards. That kind of offense is counterproductive for a quarterback who already lines up in a shotgun.
As for the missing piece going forward, WVU needs to be able to rely on Doege for quick feet and an accurate release, which quite honestly, we haven't seen yet. He spends too much time searching for a receiver and not enough scrambling out of a rapidly-dissolving pocket. The addition of Garrett Greene as a rushing threat helps advance the ball in a way that Doege hasn't shown confidence in, but the two are very different, and it's unlikely that we'll see Greene sub in for more than a few scripted plays.
On defense, the Mountaineers dominated the Hokies, holding Burmeister's offensive push to only 326 yards of total offense and a stark inability to convert in the red zone. For WVU Football, which ranks No. 1 in the country in red zone defense, that made the difference.
Q: We all know about Leddie Brown and what he brings to the table, who are the other West Virginia playmakers you are watching out for to have an impact against Oklahoma?
A: The defensive line has been strong over the course of the Virginia Tech and LIU games. I'd watch out for Akheem Mesidor at nose and Dante Stills at defensive tackle. Those two up front, coupled with Taijh Alston, will hold firm. In the backfield, Virginia Tech was a breakout game for linebacker Jared Bartlett. He's entering Oklahoma as the Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week. He tallied five tackles and three sacks against VT, and the redshirt sophomore has tasted blood for the first time.
Jackie Matthews also had a crucial goal-line stand, sealing the second Mountaineer win with a tackle at the two-yard-line during Week 3.
On offense, the receiving corps has been solid all around. Although Leddie Brown scored all of the WVU points vs. Maryland (minus Casey Legg's field goal), the wide outs (Ford-Wheaton, Wright Jr., James, and Ryan) have tacked on an additional 36 points, and the ball is rolling now.
Q: How do you feel the Mountaineer defense matches up with Spencer Rattler and the Sooners offense?
A: The Mountaineers and Sooners are tied for 31st in the country for scoring defense, so I really think the game will be won based on quick shots to the corners of the field. The WVU corners have done a good job of forcing the run toward the outside, and WVU's safeties have severely cut those options. FS Alonzo Addae had a great game against Virginia Tech, winning the Lott IMPACT Trophy Defensive Player of the Week award for his ten tackles and sack of Burmeister. On the opposite side, Scottie Young and Sean Mahone keep a clean secondary. I expect Rattler to get forced into long balls, and I wouldn't be surprised to see this defensive scheme record a sack or two.
Q: What is the strength of the West Virginia offense? Defense?
A: Jarret Doege is a huge fan of the short spurt passes. His longest connection this season was 39 yards for a Sean Ryan LIU touchdown, but the offense is good at chipping away at second downs. It's no surprise, but Brown is normally the key to WVU's offensive packages. Shutting him down is going to be paramount for the Sooners to stop WVU's offensive push.
On defense, this secondary is full of veterans who already gel well. After watching six sacks during Virginia Tech, I'm excited to see how DC Jordan Lesley's defense will show up against its second ranked opponent of 2021.
Q: What are the most glaring weaknesses with the Mountaineers this season?
A: I have two answers for this. The first: mitigating turnovers. It's been an issue since the Maryland loss. Through three games, including one newly-FCS team, the Mountaineers have a -6 turnover margin. That ranks the team 127th in the country and dead last in the Big 12. Four fumbles and three interceptions add to that vulnerability; it's an aspect of the WVU offense that the coaching staff has emphasized to media each week as something that they're working on, but I'm not sure how that will present against the Sooners.
The second answer: second half scoring. Omitting the 28 points scored in the second half of the Long Island victory, Maryland and Virginia Tech have held West Virginia to a measly six points combined. A Casey Legg field goal in the 4th quarter was the only scoring opportunity the Mountaineers could scrounge up against the Terrapins, and Legg provided the remaining three in the third quarter of last week's Virginia Tech win. To put that scoring drought in perspective, once more omitting Long Island, opponents have outscored the Mountaineers 24-6 in second half scoring; the addition of the LIU game boosts the Mountaineers up 28 points, but that's neither here nor there in terms of scoring output longevity heading into conference play.
Q: Finish this thought. West Virginia pulls off this upset if they ___ ?
A: Collapse the pocket and hold firm on the corners. Rattler is known to rush, so the middle of the field, where he'll meet linebacker corps Exree Loe, Josh Chandler-Semedo, VanDarius Cowan, Jared Bartlett, and Sean Mahone, will probably be where the majority of the action ends up. If the Mountaineers hold the Sooners to a low-scoring second half and flip the script on their own second half scoring, that may be one of the only ways to pick up the upset.
Q: What are your expectations for this Mountaineer team heading into Big 12 play? Can they compete for a Big 12 title?
A: There's a lot of work to do for this Mountaineer squad. I don't see a Big 12 Conference title in the books for this season, but building off of what we've seen in these first three games, I'm confident that WVU won't land down near Kansas. At the beginning of the season, I predicted that WVU would end up 8-4, 5-4 in conference. Now, I'd say that the best WVU can do is 7-5, still 5-4 in the Big 12. That's a fairly safe bet, but mid-season games against Texas Tech, TCU (on the road), and Oklahoma State could easily flip either way.
Q: What are your general impressions of Jarret Doege so far this season? Is he good enough in your mind to win a game like this?
A: Mountaineer fans are stuck with Jarret Doege, whether they want him or not. HC Brown has repeatedly said that Garrett Greene simply isn't prepared enough to take on Big 12 Conference foes. He had time in both the LIU and VT wins, even scoring twice against the Sharks. How that two-quarterback rotation will pan out against Oklahoma is probably minimal. Doege has started to take a page from Greene's rushing playbook, but it's not been anything to write home about. He's content to remain a passing quarterback, but I do think that his pocket movement is going to have to speed up if he wants any chance of holding opponents to zero sacks. Additionally, his average passing yardage has declined significantly from last season: down 16 yards from this time in 2020. He has 729 yards and six touchdowns thus far, but interceptions, three including one in the end zone at Maryland, are a stat that's plaguing him already.
Q: How does the West Virginia fan base, in your view, feel about Neal Brown at this point in his tenure? Would you consider him to have a good approval rating?
A: If it's any consolation, most Mountaineer fans are too transfixed on attempting to unseed Doege as QB1 to focus much on Brown's approval rating. I'd say that overall, his 13-12 record at WVU leaves some to be desired, though. Tack on a five-game road losing streak going into Norman and you don't particularly like what you see. A win in the 2020 AutoZone Liberty Bowl over Army after going 6-4 and landing at fifth in the Big 12 had fans hoping for an improved season in 2021. There have been some questionable plays called, but overall, I'd say that Mountaineer Nation enjoys having Brown around. Ask me again in January.
Q: Score prediction for this Oklahoma-West Virginia matchup on Saturday night?
A: ESPN has the Sooners at a 90 percent chance to deal the Mountaineers a second season loss. Even still, I don't foresee it becoming quite the blowout that the Big 12 Conference might be expecting from an undefeated No. 4 Oklahoma team. I'm confident in giving the Sooners three-four scores, and potentially a fifth, but I think the Mountaineers will put up at least two touchdowns, maybe even a third, and drive down close enough for Legg to add some points as well. I'm going to say 35-28 Sooners at most, but the 35-21 range is more reasonable.
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