There's a good chance Oklahoma would be a substantial favorite in tonight's Fiesta Bowl if Rich Rodriguez and his genius spread brain were still on duty for Mountaineers, if only because of the slight but lingering stigma of `Big East' and the wildly disparate results the last time we saw either team, on the night of Dec. 1, when Oklahoma beat the shine off a spread-based Missouri offense that had not been remotely contained in any previous game as West Virginia simultaneously blew its mythical championship shot at home against a four-win Pitt team that was starting a true freshman quarterback and had been ripped to shreds on national television by Navy back in October. These are fairly obvious connections, and they add up to Oklahoma, convincingly.
Wherefore art thou, Steve?
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Of note, in the interest of contrarianism: of West Virginia's five losses over the last three seasons, only one has occurred when Pat White and Steve Slaton both appeared healthy in the same backfield - WVU's defeat at the hand of Virginia Tech was prior to either freshman's midseason insertion in the lineup, the Thursday night loss at Louisville in 2006 was largely without Slaton (and actually hampered by the injured hand that kept him on the bench throughout the second half, the cause of two fumbles, one of them returned for a momentum-stealing touchdown) and the defeat at South Florida in September went down largely without White, who did not play in a defensively-dominated, mistake-filled second half that prefigured the nip-and-tuck defensive loss to the Panthers almost exactly. The Pitt game, it could be argued, is the only game in that span the Mountaineers played without both White and Slaton, the former done in by an injury to his throwing hand and the prolific running back strangely ignored in the second half. This has been Slaton's least productive season by far, and though he went over 1,000 yards for the third straight year, his yards per carry dipped by two full yards from its dizzying 7.03 in 2006 as his role dramatically diminished beginning with the loss at USF; Slaton, ostensibly healthy all season, had only 13 carries in that game despite White's absence for the entire second half, and White had far more carries (89) than Slaton (66) in the consecutive wins over top conference challengers Rutgers, Louisville, Cincinnati and UConn. Slaton had five 100-yard efforts in six full games as a freshman, and ten in eleven games in 2006, but only two in his last eight this year, never the kind of outrageous torching to which we'd become accustomed, and his gradual demotion to role player is the story of the West Virginia offense over the second half of 2007.
The Mountaineers are no stranger to being an underdog, and Oklahoma has consistently shown it can be susceptible to unexpected sniping (especially to unconventional offenses), as demonstrated at Colorado and Texas Tech this year and in its game with Boise State in the desert spaceship hosting the Fiesta Bowl last year. But in general, the Sooners are exactly the kind of team to handle West Virginia, and almost anyone else, regardless the situation on the sidelines - they're relentlessly fast on defense, as proven against Missouri's spectacular attack in the Big 12 Championship, and are as efficient and adept at their power/play-action-based scheme as any offense you could reasonably imagine; OU can grind out first downs between the tackles (Allen Patrick), break a killer run at any point (DeMarco Murray), stretch defenses deep (Malcolm Kelly and Juaquin Iglesias) and make good in the red zone (eleven of tight end Jermaine Gresham's 34 catches were for touchdowns), behind a quarterback who has shown scant symptoms of his often fatal condition, reshirt freshmanitis, outside of the loss to Colorado.
The Sooners, in other words, can play any kind of game, answer stop for stop or match score for score if necessary, where West Virginia against an offense of OU's caliber is challenged with scoring early and often and opening up the lanes for a track meet. If the Mountaineers are left gasping for air in the middle of a one-dimensional bog - this has been the case in both losses to South Florida and the loss to Pittsburgh - wondering where their big plays went, the prospects are grim, Rodriguez or no Rodriguez. Oklahoma will miss defensive tackle and suspended shoplifter DeMarcus Granger, but its sideline-to-sideline speed at linebacker and physicality in the secondary (on very good display in the second win over Missouri) will contain WVU long enough for the offense to bite off a lead and play from in front, where the whole playbook is open, when we're not sure yet how much of the Mountaineer playbook is even left. By the time West Virginia hires a coach next week, Oklahoma will be wondering where, exactly, it fits in the top four (with Florida, Georgia and USC) to open next season.
|West Virginia 23