Oklahoma plan is man-to-man
MORGANTOWN - There's good news and bad for West Virginia's somewhat-struggling offense this week, and both come in the style of defense the Mountaineers will face Saturday against No. 13 Oklahoma.
The good news is that perhaps for the first time all season - and certainly for the first time in the past four games - West Virginia won't see the style of defense that opponents have been borrowing from each other to stop an attack once thought nearly unstoppable. Oklahoma won't drop into deep, safe zone coverage designed to take away big plays.
But while that might be a welcome respite, the Sooners' version of the alternative is not. Oklahoma will match up four or five defenders against WVU's four or five receivers, play man-to-man coverage and simply see who is best.
The bad news is that, so far, Oklahoma has won those battles against everyone it has played.
"It boils down to they think they've got better players than [the opponents] they play,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said Tuesday. "And that's why that scheme is pretty good, because they've got pretty good players.''
Indeed, while the teams that have managed to stop or dramatically slow down West Virginia's offense during the team's four-game losing streak have done so as much with scheme as personnel, Oklahoma seldom has an issue with personnel.
Much like other traditional powers the likes of Alabama, LSU, Texas, etc., the Sooners have a roster filled with five-star recruits. It's nice to pair those players with a good scheme, of course, but sometimes the best scheme that can be devised is one that simply allows talented players to show that they are better than those on the other team.
That's the relatively simple challenge facing West Virginia when the Mountaineers (5-4, 2-4 Big 12) host the Sooners (7-2, 5-1) at 7 p.m. Saturday at Mountaineer Field.
Simple to understand, that is; not simple to win.
What Oklahoma does on defense is unusual and certainly a nod toward combating the high-powered passing attacks in the Big 12. The Sooners will play a four-man front and behind that two and sometimes just one linebacker. On the back end are two safeties and in the middle three or four cover guys.
Mathematically, the alignment sometimes works out to almost a 4-1-4-2 or 4-2-3-2 alignment.
The basic idea seems to be this: There's a four-man front and a linebacker to play the run and rush the passer, cover guys in the middle to lock down one-on-one with wide receivers and the two safeties to either help in coverage or come up and fill in against the run.
The results this year have been overall successful, but still mixed. Take Baylor last week, for example. The Bears, who threw 47 times for 581 yards against West Virginia, ran the ball 51 times for 252 yards against Oklahoma. The Sooners won 42-34, but those rushing numbers were alarming.
"[It wasn't just] last week. It's every week,'' Holgorsen said of OU almost ceding the run in order to stop the pass. "They do the same thing every time.''
Whether West Virginia can take advantage of that, however, remains to be seen. The Mountaineers haven't run the ball exceptionally well since the Texas game, which not coincidentally was the team's last win.
If they can't, it will be up to Geno Smith and the passing game to win some of those battles. But that's where the bad news is. Oklahoma leads the Big 12 and is No. 8 in the nation in pass defense, No. 2 in pass efficiency defense. The Sooners have given up just three touchdown passes all season, none when it mattered (one to Florida A&M and two to Texas after building a 56-8 lead).
Consider this: Oklahoma has faced Collin Klein of Kansas State, Seth Doege of Texas Tech and Nick Florence of Baylor, who combined to throw for 14 touchdowns and an average of 468 yards against WVU. Against the Sooners those three threw for an average of 175 yards and zero touchdowns.
While that is certainly as much an indictment of WVU's defense as anything else, it still serves to illustrate what West Virginia's offense is up against this week. That defensive alignment can't possibly work unless the Sooners win a ton of one-on-one matchups, and obviously they have, at least in the passing game.
"This poses different challenges,'' Holgorsen said. "There are one-on-one matchups. Are our guys going to be good enough to win those one-on-one matchups? We'll see Saturday night.''
Baylor won in the running game and kept last week's game competitive right to the end in part because the Bears were able to spread that defense even further than most Oklahoma opponents. West Virginia hopes to do the same and then rely on Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey to win matchups in the secondary and hope that up front the offensive line wins enough battles to spring running backs into what figures to be open space.
"Baylor does as good a job as anybody in the country of putting people in space. I feel like we do a pretty good job of putting people in space,'' Holgorsen said. "And then once those guys are in space it's about making some people miss, and Baylor did a pretty good job of making some people miss.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.