Under the Hood: New Look Mountaineers

This weekend Oklahoma begins Big 12 play against second-year conference foe West Virginia, who got off to a blaze in the conference in 2012 but since that fast start capped by a 48-45 win over Texas to put the team to 5-0 the Mountaineers are just 3-6 including a heart-stopping 50-49 loss to the Sooners last year. Dana Holgorsen's bunch return 10 starters total but just three from one of the country's most potent offenses in 2012. As mentioned a fast start to last season ended in a fizzle and No. 8 in the conference when midseason buzz had the Mountaineers a real national title contender as well as Geno Smith the front runner for the Heisman. Below we go Under the Hood of West Virginia and take a look at the Mountaineers in their season-opening win over William & Mary on Aug. 31, 2013, and we'll try to give you an idea of just what the Sooners are facing Saturday night.
Against the Tribe, West Virginia rushed for 172 yards on 44 attempts (3.9 yards per carry) and completed 19-of-27 passes for 237-yards (8.8 yards per attempt).
West Virginia's quarterback battle coming into this game may not have been fully decided between junior Paul Millard and Florida State transfer Clint Trickett but following this performance there can be little doubt that Millard is the guy. Millard went 19-for-25 for 237-yards and a 69-yard touchdown to Ronald Carswell.
The third-year Mountaineer has grown up in the program as he backed up West Virginia great Geno Smith and though he took the 'Neers down the field on their first drive of the game he then hit a few hurdles and was replaced by Trickett in the second quarter. However, he was soon brought back into the game and found a nice rhythm from there on out. Millard showed a lot of toughness including on the touchdown pass he took a big hit but stayed in the pocket and delivered the ball to Carswell for the score.
Millard may not be an elite athlete but bought time at various points in the game and showed the calm demeanor developed through time in his system. Even with the Mountaineers down 17-7 he showed a good ability to handle crucial situations.
Much of the pressure and difficulty he faced during the game was due to an offensive line that while improving through the game had several miscues that allowed various blitzers to penetrate the line and force Millard into several hurried decisions.
The group was led by Quinton Spain but Marquis Lucas also showed real promise and again, as the game wore on so did their impact upon the game, most notably on the ground. It's a group in which only Spain and right tackle Curtis Feigt are returning starters so more development can come for the line who along with Lucas and junior right guard Mark Giowinski and senior center Pat Eger. Spain is the headliner her but he had some trouble with William and Mary defensive ends and surprisingly the 6-foot-5, 335-pound offensive tackle had trouble setting his base and was bull rushed a time or two. It'll be interesting to see if Oklahoma's bigger defensive ends like Charles Tapper might find some joy in a similar attack.
Beyond Millard's heady play and overall toughness in the pocket the story for the offense had to be Houston transfer Charles Sims at running back. On the day Sims averaged 5.2-yards per carry and had a touchdown on 23 carries. Joining him in the backfield were junior college transfer Dreamius Smith and freshman Wendell Smallwood. Sims is a slashing runner who made a lot of quality plays and his vision separated him from Smith and Smallwood. Smith is described as something of a wrecking ball and though he doesn't have elite speed he does have good feet and the ability to break arm tackles.
The West Virginia offense is a lot more run heavy than it's predecessors so the run game will have to be watched much more closely and possibly much more closely than even the aerial attack where Millard is joined by a bevy of receivers and though none, aside from Carswell, well made any huge impact Millard's apparent favorite target is freshman Dakiel Shorts, the short and sturdy receiver caught seven balls for 63-yards.
Against the Mountaineers, William & Mary rushed for 102 yards on 31 attempts (3.3 yards per carry) and completed 18-for-27 passes for 207-yards (7.7 yards per attempt).
Oklahoma's offense has spent months practicing, privately, against a three-man defensive front so West Virginia's move to the 3-4 may not come as the same shock to their system as it might to others around the Big 12. However, while the Mountaineer defense was among the conference, and country's, worst in 2012 there were several positive signs in the game with the Tribe.
The defense used multiple front - though the vast majority of the time they were in a 3-4 front - including at times only two men down and with those exotic fronts had a lot of various blitzes. That being said their defensive line did, at times, create some nice pressure and the trio of nose tackle Shaq Rowell, and defensive ends Will Clarke and Dontrill Hyman. Rowell is a massive 6-foot-4, 305-pound defensive tackle who does a lot to hold up against the run and even pushes the pocket in passing situations. Clarke is a rangier player who closes well but isn't the most physical player of the trio. Hyman was something of an unknown coming in from the junior college ranks but has a nice first step and did well pushing through the various offensive tackles he was facing.
The Mountaineers don't have a lot of depth that stood out along the defensive line but the starting three are a formidable unit.
At linebacker, the returning star is sophomore Isaiah Bruce who made several freshman All-American teams in 2012 and was one of the few bright spots on an otherwise bleak defense. And though he is playing in a similar position on the field he was moved around quite a bit through the game - at times coming off the edge and at times playing in the middle of the defense. Another defender that caught the eye was fellow linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski who made several great tackles in open space and showed a physicality that is necessary in a three-man front for a linebacker required to come up in run support.
Many of the blitzes from the front seven came at the expense of putting West Virginia's secondary on an island and it should come as no surprise as the unit is almost undoubtedly the strength of the defense and is led by sophomore free safety Karl Joseph. Joseph is a big hitter who in spite of his physical game isn't exactly lackluster in coverage and was the team's leader in tackles as a freshman in 2012. Two other players who showed some signs of making some real plays for the Mountaineers were strong safety Darwin Cook and sophomore safety KJ Dillon.
IF I'M Oklahoma, I…
I'm starting to sound like a broken record but for the third straight game I really think seeing the Sooners defense get aggressive and force a young, and somewhat unproven, group of receivers try and make plays against Oklahoma's deep, talented, and experienced secondary. I thought that while Millard did a nice job avoiding pressure and handling the pressure his offensive line struggled with some blitz pickups and while game one to game two should see improvement there is no doubt that the improvement will also come in a step up from William & Mary to Oklahoma. The Sooners need to try and force the issue with that offensive line and see if they can create some big plays not only behind the line of scrimmage but perhaps force Millard into some bad decisions through the air.
Of course this applies pressure to Oklahoma's secondary to make some plays in one-on-one situations and if any player is going to be the most notably placed in 'harm's' way it would be redshirt freshman cornerback Zack Sanchez who earned himself another start after a stellar performance against the Warhawks last weekend. He can begin to cement himself as the man at the position with another strong performance against a higher level of competition.
It may also be a chance for the safety duo of Gabe Lynn and Quentin Hayes to begin to step more into the limelight. The duo, quietly, had a really solid performance last weekend with Lynn looking the natural safety that many thought he might become during his highly acclaimed career.
This of course all forgets the linebacker corps that will be called into duty heavily with the Mountaineers new found reliance on their ground game as well as the always predominant intermediate passing game. Last week they may have been the talk of the game but much like the rest of the defense the Mountaineers are a chance to see 'what was real' and further chance for Corey Nelson and Frank Shannon to place themselves among the top shelf Big 12 linebackers and for Eric Striker to begin to put his name on an even bigger stage as a truly disruptive force.
Offensively Oklahoma's run game will have to be established as West Virginia's use of multiple fronts has a chance to create some real problems for Oklahoma's pass blockers - though they did a wonderful job for the most part picking up stunts and twists against ULM. If Oklahoma can run the ball and wear down the West Virginia defensive line it should open up more passing avenues and give Oklahoma's vertical passing game and new quarterback Trevor Knight a few extra moments to develop.
If this sounds a lot like what Oklahoma did last week, it's because it worked so well, there is little reason to stop doing it.