Homecoming is a time when Alumni return to campus to reacquaint themselves with old friends and is usually filled with traditions and activities that often include a parade and the crowning of a homecoming queen and king. For West Virginia University homecoming is this weekend, with festivities scheduled all weekend with Saturday night’s game against 21st ranked Oklahoma State the focal point of the weekend. It all begins Friday night with the annual parade down High Street and includes numerous Alumni reunions (for a complete list, view the official site here) and the crowning of a new court during halftime of the game. While the outcome of the game is important, (it is the reason most teams attempt to schedule a sure win and nothing fires an opposing team up more than to be chosen for the homecoming game) it is generally not the primary reason many alumni return to their respective schools. Generally speaking the same cannot be said of the football team, whose members wait until after the game to celebrate their homecoming with what they hope is a victory.
For members of the WVU football team, the primary significance of this week’s game is not so much that it is Homecoming or even that it is the next game; the biggest reason many are looking forward to Saturday is that it will be the first opportunity to rid themselves from the sour taste of last week’s loss to Oklahoma in Norman. This time last week, the Mountaineers were ranked with hopes of a Big 12 Championship and a playoff berth, but both took a serious hit after the 44-24 loss to the Sooners. Particularly frustrating for the Mountaineers is the way they performed in the loss. The nation’s leading scoring defense at 7.7 points per game gave up 44 points and one of the nation’s top QBs, Skylar Howard, had an uncharacteristic day with two fumbles and three interceptions. The pass defense, regarded by many as the anchor of the defense was porous in giving up several big plays including touchdown passes of 17, 28 and 71 yards. While Oklahoma’s first touchdown was a perfect route in which the receiver and QB executed perfectly in beating the blitz by micro-seconds, the other two touchdowns were the result of mental breakdowns of defensive players. On Oklahoma’s first touchdown, the tight end streaked between two linebackers focused on pre-snap motion and on the long touchdown late in the third quarter that deflated a surging Mountaineer team, the defense was in cover 3 but CB Darryl Worley bit on the pump fake, allowing the receiver to run free on the play. The other Sooner touchdown as a 35 yard run in which at least two players missed tackles. While all are, as coach Dana Holgorsen stated correctable, they are all issues that have plagued this veteran defense in the past and are unexpected after the previous 3 games.
Offensively the Mountaineers did not fare much better in Norman. The passing game was thwarted by both coverage and the blitz.While the Mountaineers did rush for 196 yards, it took 54 carries to accumulate those yards, a paltry 3.6 yards per rush. Much of that is attributed to the 7 sacks of QB Skylar Howard which resulted in a loss of 55 yards, negating the 68 yards he gained that included his 50 yard touchdown run; officially he carried the ball 11 times for 12 yards, averaging 1.1 yards per carry. It was not just Howard though as Rushel Shell, regarded by many as West Virginia’s best back, carried 20 times for 72 yards, a paltry 3.6 yards per carry. Unlike Howard, Shell’s totals are not a result of lost yards as he only had 2 lost yards on the day. His longest run on the day covering 15 yards thus the majority of his runs were for 3 yards or less. When combined with the fact that the Sooners had 12 tackles for loss totaling 68 yards with the majority coming on the aforementioned sacks, the running totals of all were boosted by Wendell Smallwood who tallied 116 yards on 22 caries. Partially responsible for those sacks was redshirt freshman Yodny Cajuste, a raw talent many believe will perhaps be West Virginia’s next great offensive lineman but currently is having trouble with pass protection. While Cajuste deserves some blame for pass protection issues, he is not the sole reason Howard went down 7 times. On the sack in which he was stripped of the ball, fullback Elijah Wellman was to block linebacker Eric Striker but missed badly, allowing the Sooner All American to strip Howard resulting in a 41 yard touchdown that sealed the game for Oklahoma.
While this game is in the past and the Mountaineers are looking forward, for both the team and the fans, Saturday’s game against Oklahoma State is a bit worrisome in that the Cowboys excel in both areas in which WVU struggled against Oklahoma. OSU leads the nation in sacks at 4.4 per game and tackles for loss at 10.2 per game and lead the Big 12 in total defense allowing just 310 yards per game. This is a defense that is equally stingy as they allow 132 yards per game on the ground and 178 yards per game through the air. Up front they are led by bookend defensive ends Emmanuel Ogbah, who leads the Big 12 in sacks with 6.5 and Jimmy Bean with 4 sacks. Defensively, CB Jordan Sterns is third in the Big 12 in tackles, averaging 9.2 per game but from there, the swarming defense has 9 players that average between 3 and 5 tackles per game. Offensively, West Virginia is second in rushing offense at 245 yards per game, sixth in passing offense at 285 yards per game, fifth in total offense at 499 yards per game and fifth in scoring offense at 38.5 points per game, thus the WV offense versus the OSU defense looks to be a challenge for both teams.
On the flip side, West Virginia continues to lead the Big 12 in scoring defense at 16.8 points per game, is third in rushing defense at 141 yards per game, third in pass defense at 195 yards per game in second in total defense, surrendering 337 yards per game. The OSU offense ranks sixth in the Big 12 in scoring offense at 38.2 points per game, fifth in passing offense at 345 yards per game but last in rushing offense at 138.2 yards per game. As a result, the Cowboys rank sixth in total offense at 483 yards per game. While they are not as balanced as West Virginia, QB Mason Rudolph has completed 66% of his passes for 1,674 yards (334 per game) with 9 touchdowns and 4 interceptions and has demonstrated a keen ability to find receivers to hit the deep ball. Since taking over the starting position late last year, Rudolph is 7-0 including a perfect 5-0 this year. Senior David Glidden leads the Cowboys with 23 receptions while junior Dondre Daily has 19 among a receiving corps in which 10 players have caught passes. Statistically this is a match-up that seems to favor West Virginia but given the big plays allowed against Oklahoma and the loss of All American Karl Joseph, this match-up becomes a toss-up. The question for Mountaineer fans is whether defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has been able to clean up the mistakes that lead directly to 21 Oklahoma points or will the Mountaineers continued to be plagued by inconsistency among veteran players that allowed so many big plays. If West Virginia is to keep hope alive of a Big 12 Championship and with big games against Baylor and TCU upcoming, they cannot afford to lose this week. To achieve the season goals, they must make homecoming celebration a victorious event.