MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Oklahoma game week is upon us. Josh Callaway, who covers the undefeated No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners for Sports Illustrated, stopped by to chat about his expectations of head coach Lincoln Riley’s 2021 Sooner roster.
The Sooners have a 90 percent win probability over the Mountaineers. What factors have cemented Oklahoma in the top-5 rankings and in what kind of shape can Mountaineer fans expect to see the Sooners?
– “Well, the reality of the situation is Oklahoma has not performed like a top-5 team so far this season. The ranking is earned largely through reputation and the belief in the talent the Sooners possess, which is definitely among the best in the country. There are reasons to be optimistic if you’re an Oklahoma fan through the first three games, but just as many reasons to be concerned moving forward because, quite simply, this hasn’t been the championship-caliber team that we were all expecting to see coming into the year. That being said, this team is still very good. The defensive front is as good as any in the country and while Spencer Rattler has had an underwhelming start to his year, he still has elite level arm talent capable of carving up just about any defense. The Sooners didn’t come close to covering the spread against either Tulane or Nebraska, so it would not shock me in the slightest for this to be a competitive game deep into the second half. Where things could get tricky for West Virginia is if Lincoln Riley finally decides to open things up with big success, because to this point the offense has been fairly vanilla.”
WVU’s Winston Wright Jr. leads the nation in kickoff return yardage. How does Oklahoma’s special teams work to quell that field position advancement?
– “The easy answer here is Gabe Brkic has legitimately NFL-level leg strength. In 19 kickoffs, he has 13 touchbacks. Oklahoma has the speed to get down and try to limit returns in the kicking game, but Brkic typically makes it a moot point. As far as the punt game, well, the Sooners rarely punt. Michael Turk has only had the opportunity five times in the first three games.”
The Sooners give up more than 60 yards to penalty calls per game, thus far. Do you see that as a tipping point?
– “It certainly could be. False starts have been noticeably a problem the first few weeks which is a killer for a Sooners offense that can be lethal when they stay ahead of the chains. Oklahoma is at their best when they are running the ball and strike a good balance on offense. Falling into long second and third down situations is what neutralizes that and hurt them against Nebraska.”
Both teams are in the 48 percent range on third down conversions. What does the WVU defense have to do to stop Rattler’s offense? Conversely, what are the strengths of the Oklahoma defensive front?
– “Against Tulane, it seemed evident that Rattler didn’t quite trust his offense just yet. He had happy feet, and was throwing off his back foot way too much. That was improved to a degree against Nebraska. If West Virginia can find a way to collapse the pocket at all, that is their best bet. Rattler isn’t a terrible scrambler, but he isn’t close to what the Sooners used to have in the likes of Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray or Jalen Hurts when it comes to evading the pocket. As for the flip side, OU’s defensive front is really the strength of the team. In obvious passing scenarios, Isaiah Thomas, Perrion Winfrey, Jalen Redmond, Isaiah Coe and even linebacker Nik Bonitto, have been flat teeing off on opponents. Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez was able to use his legs to extend plays with some success last week, but Seth [sic] Doege isn’t the athlete Martinez is, meaning the Sooners’ front should have a chance to make a big impact.”
Who has been most improved since preseason?
– “This is a tough call but I think the sneaky option here is running back Kennedy Brooks, as odd as that may sound. Brooks was one of the best running backs in the Big 12 in 2019, and then sat out last season being cautious with COVID-19. Coming into this year the talk was all about Tennessee transfer Eric Gray, who has been good, but Brooks has stepped right back into his extremely reliable self. All spring and fall we didn’t hear much about Brooks and it seemed like he was going to be the second option to Gray, but man has Brooks been good so far. He’s off to a great start.”
What are you expecting to see out of a Sooner secondary that has regained nearly 100 yards on 27 TFLs?
– “The Oklahoma secondary is, for a lack of a more articulate word, weird. They have the playmakers on the outside. Cornerbacks D.J. Graham, Woodi Washington (who missed the Nebraska game with injury), Jaden Davis and Latrell McCutchin form a really nice group. The back end is loaded with veterans who have played a lot of ball in Delarrin Turner-Yell, Pat Fields and Justin Broiles. But, it has definitely been the weak spot of the defense so far. Getting Washington back healthy along with freshman nickelback Billy Bowman is hugely important. As it currently stands it isn’t clear if those guys will be back this week or not, but without them the Sooners don’t rotate very much in the back end and that can hurt them late in the game.”
What unnerves you about WVU’s stats so far?
– “I think the thing that jumps out at me when I look at West Virginia’s numbers is that they are only allowing 2.6 yards per rush through three games. As I referenced earlier, Oklahoma is at their best when they are balanced and running the football well. The narrative around Lincoln Riley has always been a disciple of the Texas Tech “Air Raid” offense that throws the ball 70 times, which has been a big misconception. Riley likes to pound the rock. If they are struggling to run the ball and have to rely on an inconsistent passing game in third and long’s, it could be a struggle for OU offensively all night long.”
Offensive projections? Quarterback systems?
– “Spencer Rattler will almost certainly see every snap of this game as long as it is competitive, which it likely will be. Backup Caleb Williams came in to run a designed quarterback run against Tulane, but that was the only time we’ve seen that to this point. It is always possible Riley will bust out new tricks, but it would be surprising to see anyone besides Rattler under center throughout the night. In the run game it has been exclusively Eric Gray and Kennedy Brooks outside of the 76-0 romping of Western Carolina. The receiving game is where Oklahoma will showcase their depth with a bevy of receivers who can make things happen. Jadon Haselwood and Marvin Mims are the main targets, but Mike Woods, Mario Williams and Cody Jackson, among others, will get passes thrown their way, along with tight ends Austin Stogner and Brayden Willis.”
Rattler vs. Williams at QB. What can Mountaineer fans watch for?
– “Rattler and Williams are pretty different. Rattler is more your true pocket passer that steps back and shows off a laser arm with insane accuracy. Williams has a great arm of his own, but his athleticism is what stands out. Whenever his time comes in the near future, Lincoln Riley is going to have a lot of fun utilizing his dual-threat ability. Williams likely won’t see the field much at all in this game, but if he does, expect fireworks. Rattler, meanwhile, has all the arm talent in the world. It is really just down to him making the right decisions and not forcing the ball where it shouldn’t be. If he avoids mistakes he can be lethal.”
What side of the ball do you see West Virginia making trouble on?
– “Between offense and defense I definitely look forward to seeing the Mountaineer defense against Spencer Rattler and the Oklahoma offense for all the reasons I have touched on already. The Sooners weren’t quite as bad last week as it seemed since the number of possessions against Nebraska were so low, but it still wasn’t great. I am incredibly interested to see if OU can bounce back offensively or if West Virginia is going to continue to cause problems.”
What will the Sooners need to A. do well and B. clean up in order to move to 4-0?
– “That offense has got to find a rhythm. It just felt out of sync for so much of the Nebraska game, it was startling and so unlike anything we have seen since Riley has been in Norman. Twenty-three points is unheard of for an Oklahoma offense in the last half-decade. If they want to move to 4-0, and continue to make a legitimate run back to the College Football Playoff, they have to find a way to get the offense rolling again like it was in the back end of the season last year. Because, for the most part, the Sooners defense is doing its part. They need to put it all together fast if they want to be what they are capable of being this year.”