It hasn’t been easy in several weeks for No. 6 Oklahoma, but the Sooners always seem to find a way. With a Big 12 Championship Game berth on the line, Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray found receiver CeeDee Lamb for a critical first down on fourth-and-5 to help secure a 59-56 win over No. 13 West Virginia. The win puts the Sooners in a rematch with Texas in Arlington next Saturday. And while Oklahoma probably doesn’t control its College Football Playoff destiny, it’s still very much in the hunt and could slide into that No. 4 spot if a couple of games fall the right way. In particular: Michigan-Ohio State and Notre Dame-USC on Saturday will be of immediate interest.
It’s also a tough loss for the Mountaineers, who felt this year was their best chance to make the Big 12 title game with the return of quarterback Will Grier, who did indeed put up huge numbers vs. the hapless Sooners defense with 539 yards and four touchdowns.
This was the high-scoring affair that everyone figured it would be. With this game in the books, here’s what we learned …
Yes, the defenses really were that bad: The Big 12 gets an unfair knock — sometimes — that it doesn’t play defense. This isn’t always the case, and sometimes the offenses are just that good. This is the case when Oklahoma does things like hang 48 points on Georgia in the Rose Bowl. However, the defenses in this game? Horrible. There was little redeemable about the combined 1,372 yards of offense and more than 100 points. This was not a matter of quarterback making NFL throws into tight windows, although there was great quarterback play. This was straight-up bad tackling, bad angles … bad everything. It was most definitely not a comparison to the Chiefs-Rams game from Monday Night Football this past week. Yes, this game was fun, but it was also painfully predictable.
Still, Oklahoma’s defense came away with two big plays: Let’s be quite clear in saying that Oklahoma’s defense is ghastly. That has not changed since defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was fired midseason, and it won’t change anytime soon (this season or maybe even next). They’ve won in spite of it for some time now. That’s a whole separate issue. But, my oh my, did Oklahoma get some key plays from that defense when it absolutely needed it in the form of two strip sacks that resulted in scoop-and-scores.
The first came in the second quarter when linebacker Caleb Kelly registered a pancake on West Virginia’s offensive tackle, sacked Grier and picked the ball up for a 10-yard score. It was a perfect combination of physical play at the line, closing speed to get the sack and awareness to get the ball into the end zone. The second scoop-and-score came in the fourth quarter when Curtis Bolton returned a Grier fumble 48 yards for the touchdown to put the Sooners up 59-49. In each of the two instances, Oklahoma was able to extend its lead by two scores. The Mountaineers always found a way to battle back, but in a close, even game like this, those two non-offensive touchdowns made a difference.
Oklahoma still gave up 704 yards at nearly 8 yards per play. They didn’t cover well downfield, at least consistently, and were gashed in the running game. That will be a problem for the remainder of the season — but when Oklahoma absolutely needed a play, it got two.
Empty possessions will haunt West Virginia: This was a theme in the Mountaineers’ loss to Oklahoma State a week ago, and it came up again Friday evening. West Virginia’s first empty possession came in the red zone in the second quarter when the offense couldn’t score on a fourth-and-6. Another empty possession came one drive later when, off of a Kyler Murray fumble, the ‘Eers promptly went three-and-out and Oklahoma scored two plays later to gain a 21-14 advantage.
West Virginia was much better in the second half at making the most of its possessions, but the one exception will haunt it for a long time. When it appeared running back Kennedy McKoy had broken off a long run to put the offense inside the 5-yard line, a personal foul penalty on receiver T.J. Simmons brought the run back. In short, Simmons blocked an Oklahoma defender way out of bounds on the play. Normally, getting your lunch eaten that badly is almost never going to result in a penalty in your favor, but Oklahoma was saved from a possible Mountaineer touchdown. The second of OU’s two strip sacks on the night came three plays later.
As a general rule, blaming officiating for the outcome of a game is weak sauce. They’re not perfect, but they’re doing their best; and for the record, penalties were even (Oklahoma had six for 60 yards and West Virginia had five for 60 yards). But that’s going to be one West Virginia will wonder why it was called. In any case, West Virginia could still have scored on that drive, but Oklahoma’s defense changed the course of the game.
Grier may have played his way to New York: If there’s anything that can make West Virginia feel even a little bit better about coming out on the short end of this game, it’s that Grier may have punched his ticket to New York for the Heisman ceremony. He won’t win, of course. That will either be Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa or Murray. But there are three spots on a Heisman ballot, and voters can be creatures of the moment. Grier’s 539 yards and four touchdowns far surpass the numbers from Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew, who, in an Apple Cup loss to Washington amid a blizzard, mustered 152 yards through the air at 4.2 yards per attempt with two interceptions.
Poor weather isn’t Minshew’s fault (and Washington’s defense is legit), and yes, voters should look at the entire scope of the season before filling their ballots. However, even in a loss, Grier had a big game on a national stage. He played well enough for voters to split that No. 3 slot. That should get him at least to the finalist’s ceremony.
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