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Looking for an opening

MORGANTOWN - A West Virginia football team mired in a dispiriting four-game losing streak faces arguably its most difficult challenge all season tonight when the Mountaineers face No. 13 Oklahoma.

Yes, WVU has already faced a team that is ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings and primed to play for the national championship if it wins two more games. But even against Kansas State the Mountaineers didn't face these challenges:

  • A defense that might be the best in the country at stopping what West Virginia does best, which is throw the football.
  • An offense that is used to attacking defenses where WVU is most vulnerable, which is in the passing game.
  • Special teams that employ four- and five-star recruits. There are so many of them on Oklahoma's roster that there's not enough room for them on offense and defense.
  • Oh, and it might be the smallest crowd of the season. With students beginning Thanksgiving break and the team on a four-game skid, less than half the allotted 12,500 student tickets were claimed. A game that at the start of the season was the toughest ticket of all might now be played in front of a good number of empty seats.
  • Still, when West Virginia (5-4, 2-4 Big 12) hosts Oklahoma (7-2, 5-1) tonight at Mountaineer Field (7 p.m., Fox), there is at least one reason for hope.

    For four games now, the Mountaineers have been hamstrung on offense by teams that have followed the same formula, playing deep zone coverage designed to eliminate the big plays that WVU relied on during its 5-0 start. At least Oklahoma isn't likely to do that.

    "I'm kind of excited about it actually,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "We haven't faced anything different for quite some time and this is a little bit different style of defense.''

    It's not easier, mind you. After all, Oklahoma has been more successful in stopping the pass than anyone else in the country. In nine games, the Sooners have given up just three passing touchdowns and none of them mattered. Two were by Texas after the Longhorns had already fallen behind 56-8 and the other was in a 69-13 rout of outmanned Florida A&M.

    But at least the Mountaineers won't be facing the same thing that has stopped them time and again during this streak. Oklahoma will play man coverage on most receivers, with a pair of safeties who must also play the run in a short-handed (5-man) box.

    "It's a different approach than what we've faced over the last six or seven games,'' Holgorsen said. "We've seen a lot of zone coverage, a lot of drop-seven, drop-six. These guys are a man coverage team.

    "But they've got tremendous athletes. They've got tremendous football players. They've got big, thick guys up front that do a great job against the run and they've got about six or seven coverage guys that can all cover. It's going to be one-on-one matchups all over the place, so we've got to do a good job of winning those.''

    Oklahoma's defensive style also invites the run and if West Virginia can get that part of its game going it would help immensely. Last week Baylor, just as pass-oriented as WVU, ran 51 times and gained 252 yards against the Sooners. The Bears lost 42-34, but were in the game right to the bitter end.

    If West Virginia is to have a chance, the offense has to be productive. That's the way the Mountaineers won their first five games, overcoming defensive deficiencies to simply overwhelm and outscore opponents.

    But while Oklahoma's style of play on defense might seem to invite success by WVU, other factors do not.

    "The one thing that never changes is the effort that they play with and the nastiness that they play with,'' Holgorsen said of the OU defense. "They play with just a tremendous amount of energy and regardless of what the scheme is that's probably a little bit more important than anything, their mentality.

    "Our approach needs to be to get ready to play the game. We need to get excited about playing a game. We need to get fired up about the opportunity.''

    Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.


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