WVU football: Challenge’ awaits Smith, Mountaineers
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- By now, it probably goes without saying that things haven't made a whole lot of sense lately at West Virginia.
The team that was supposed to settle the Big 12 Conference championship this season with Saturday's home game against No. 13 Oklahoma has instead lost four in a row and tumbled from the top five of the national polls to seventh place in the conference standings.
Each game in the longest losing streak since 2001, the Mountaineers (5-4, 2-4) have had trouble with a similar form of the same defense that plays soft pass coverage with a hard top.
Up next are the Sooners (7-2, 5-1), who happen to have the Big 12's best pass defense and are one of the most successful and most stubborn in the country.
That would probably qualify as bad news before the 7 p.m. kickoff at Mountaineer Field (WVAH telecast).
"We're kind of excited about it, actually," Coach Dana Holgorsen said.
"We haven't faced really anything different for quite some time. This will be a different style of defense."
Oklahoma is No. 2 nationally in pass efficiency defense and No. 8 in passing yards allowed per game (170.8).
The Sooners average one interception per game and have only allowed three passing touchdowns, which is second only to Boise State.
A week ago, the Sooners played Baylor, then the nation's top-ranked passing offense that was averaging 392 yards per game. The Sooners did what they do, forced 20 incomplete passes on 32 attempts and gave up just 172 yards.
Where Texas Tech, Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma State relied mostly on zone defense, Oklahoma, ranked No. 12 in the BCS standings, plays man-to-man almost exclusively and simply trusts its players to defend the opposing players without incident.
"It's cat coverage - 'I got that cat, you've got that cat,' " Mountaineers offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said.
WVU quarterback Geno Smith was once the top cat in college football, completing better than 80 percent of his passes with 24 touchdowns and no interceptions in the 5-0 start. When the Mountaineers encountered the zone coverages and the defenses that dropped six or seven players back to handle that passing attack, his and WVU's fortunes changed.
He's completed 53.6, 63.6, 59.3 and finally against Oklahoma State 66.7 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and three interceptions. The 364 passing yards against the Cowboys were his most since the school-record 656 against Baylor on Sept. 29. He hadn't topped 278 since.
"It's going to be fun getting a chance to go up against man," he said. "It really comes down to our guy beating theirs."
That's fine with Oklahoma, which structures its defense to have five or six defenders near the line of scrimmage and the rest defending the pass. Sometimes the Sooners are susceptible to the run, like they were last week when Baylor ran 51 times for 250 yards.
Oklahoma is otherwise at peace with trusting its defensive players to win one-on-one matchups across the field. The defense doesn't blitz much and doesn't use exotic pressure packages. It doesn't disguise coverages or move around before the snap.
The scheme is instead as good as the personnel.
"What it boils down to is they think they've got better players than the people they play," Holgorsen said.
That's the part of the challenge that excites the Mountaineers, who haven't seen much man-to-man coverage since the Texas Tech game, though the Red Raiders effectively mixed up their plan to neutralize WVU.
Before that, Texas trusted its defensive linemen to create pressure and let its cornerbacks play one-on-one against WVU's receiver. Stedman Bailey caught eight passes for 75 yards and three touchdowns as an outside receiver while Smith found Tavon Austin 10 times for 101 yards and a touchdown.
Austin and Bailey are both semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Awards. No team has two players in the running for the nation's best receiver.
"They're pretty basic with what they do," Bailey said. "They line up and let you know they're in man coverage and they just challenge you to beat them. That's going to be a great challenge for us, which is pretty exciting."
The Mountaineers feel better about their chances than they have in a while. Smith's yardage and completion percentage was the best of the losing streak and Bailey, who rolled his left ankle against Texas Tech and had 12 catches for 120 yards combined in that game and the two that followed, tied WVU's school record with 14 receptions for 225 yards against Oklahoma State.
Bailey said his ankle felt better than it had the previous month.
"He's a playmaker," Sooners defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. "He catches the ball, runs with it and makes people miss. He just has all the capabilities of being a big playmaker for them. They have three of them who can really cause you some headaches."
WVU had two 20-yard pass plays against the Cowboys, one a 75-yard pass to Bailey and one a 22-yard catch-and-run by J.D. Woods, where he made a defender miss. That's half as many as the Mountaineers had the previous three games. The long play by Bailey was on a vertical throw. WVU had just two vertical 20-yard plays the previous three games.
"The last two weeks, in my opinion, have been really close to being really good," Dawson said. "For some reason or another, we've been just a little bit off."
WVU missed at least three obvious chances against the Cowboys when Smith couldn't connect with Bailey, Jordan Thompson and Connor Arlia after the Mountaineers found space in Oklahoma State's zone.
"It's not going to be easy, put it that way," Dawson said. "There's not going to be a lot of wide-open guys, so you've got to make plays with guys around you. Last week we had guys running around wide open and didn't get it. Maybe we need to get defenders close to us so and we can execute it."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.