Sooners ready for new environment
Coming into the season, West Virginia was considered as not only a big time contender in the Big 12, but in the national title race as well. They were coming off a season that featured both a Big East Championship and a 37-point beat down of Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Most experts thought they would carry that momentum into their inaugural year in the Big 12. Through the first five games, the Mountaineers looked every bit the part, as they started off to a hot 5-0 start, and were averaging 52 points a game. Sure, the defense was giving up points, but the offense looked unstoppable, and Geno Smith was without question the leader in the Heisman race. At that time, the Mountaineers looked like the best team in the conference.
Milan Puskar Stadium will be rocking when the Sooners come to town on Saturday.
Then they started to feel the wrath of the Big 12 schedule.
Since the explosive start, the Mountaineers have lost four straight, including three losses of 21 points or more. For a team that looked unstoppable through the first five games, it was crazy to see that not only were they getting beat on a regular basis, they were getting blown out.
Even though the Mountaineers are struggling to get bowl eligible, the Sooners realize they must play their best to leave Morgantown with a win.
"We know they're explosive,” said Javon Harris. “They've got a lot of explosive players on their team, good quality players. Right now, we're just getting ready for all those guys. We know what they're capable of. We saw what they did at the beginning of the year. You can never sleep on a team like that."
With three games remaining, the Sooners realize that if they win out, they will find themselves in a BCS bowl. That’s still the motivation for this team, but before they start packing, they realize they have to get past a tough road block this week in Morgantown.
"I think we kind of always looked forward to this game because they are new in our conference,” said Landry Jones. “I have never played these guys and I have never been to Morgantown or anything like that. I think everybody is really excited to go out there and play them."
For players and coaches, one of the exciting things about adding a new team to the conference is the opportunity play in a new stadium, and to see what kind of atmosphere the fans bring. Bob Stoops has openly said many times that he enjoys seeing and playing in different stadiums. The opportunity for him to see Milan Puskar Stadium is something he’s looking for.
"It's always exciting going to a different stadium, and we're looking forward to a big challenge. That's what you want," said Stoops.
For those traveling to Morgantown for the game on Saturday, you will find out that West Virginia fans are a different breed. Their in-game and post-game victory celebrations have been labeled as “Very unique” by people all over the country. Casey Walker is aware of some of the traditions, and hopes they can prevent them from happening.
"They burn couches if they win. So we're going to see. We're going to try not to let them burn a couch this Saturday. I think that's kind of funny and ironic. I've never heard of that. I've heard of bringing down the goal post or rushing the field, but burning a couch? If they've got the money to buy a couch every week then more power to them."
One thing that’s critical for any team playing on the road is creating turnovers. That’s something that the Sooners have struggled to do for the majority of the season. Through eight games, the Sooners have only forced 11 turnovers, which is tied for 75th in the country. Harris leads the team with four interceptions, and he knows that it’s critical for the defense to create turnovers against an explosive offense like the Mountaineers.
“First of all you've got to talk about the past three weeks, we haven't really got any. I think we got one in the past three weeks. We're going to focus on executing our game plan and hopefully the ball will come to us."
The play of the Sooner defense is a big key to this game, not only is creating more turnovers a must, but they must tackle a lot better than they did last week against Baylor. The Mountaineers feature two outstanding wide receivers in Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey who are dangerous with the ball in their hands. If the Sooners don’t tackle better than they did last week, both Austin and Bailey will make them pay with numerous yards after the catch.
"That's something that has to be corrected immediately,” said Casey Walker. “Good football teams don't miss tackles. It's rare to see a football team that wins with as many missed tackles. You have to correct that quickly because, at the end of the day, it will catch back up with you and that's how you lose a ball game. It was good that we won the game but defensively the performance could have been better; we've played better. This week is all about improvement, looking at the mistakes we made last week and then improving on them tremendously."
Even though this game doesn’t have the national hype around it that it had during the off-season, it’s still a huge game for both sides. A loss for the Sooners derails any BCS game hopes, and a win keeps your goals still intact. A loss for West Virginia makes a six-win season a reality, whereas a win could make their season.
Both teams know what’s at stake, and it will be interesting to see how this game unfolds.