West Virginia MountaineersThe West Virginia Mountaineers, who finished the regular season at 10-2 as the Big East Champions, will enter the Fiesta Bowl coming off a crushing defeat. They were big favorites against Pittsburgh with a chance to play for the National Championship on the line. But an injury to QB Pat White helped end those title dreams as the Mountaineers came up just short.
That wasn't the first time an injury to White proved disastrous. In fact, their only two losses of the year came with White out of the game. After cruising to 5-0, West Virginia faced South Florida. White would leave the game, and South Florida would win 21-13. With White healthy and Steve Slaton gashing defenses, the Mountaineers then rattled off 6 straight wins over good teams such as Louisville, Rutgers, Cincinnati and Connecticut.
So 0-2 without White makes him a key offensive player, a playmaking threat with both his legs and arm. Another is Slaton, an early season Heisman candidate who has over 1000 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns. Although not known as a passing team, the Mountaineers look to junior wide receiver Darius Reynaud for big plays. He leads the team in receiving yards and has 11 touchdowns.
Defensively, West Virginia runs a 3-3-5 and is known as a blitzing team. They'll bring pressure from a number of different spots and rely on Florida transfer Johnny Dingle for pressure. Dingle has 8 sacks and 18 tackles for loss.
West Virginia's offense ranks 11th in scoring and 4th in rushing yards per game with nearly 293. The defense gives up only 17.3 points per game, good for 17th in Division 1. In total yards given up per game, they rank 12th.
Oklahoma SoonersLooking back at my Preseason Sooners Profile, I listed the primary concerns for 2007. Number one was quarterback. Number two was defensive playmakers. Well, the Sooners squashed both of those early in season with the emergence of redshirt freshman QB Sam Bradford (who set a new NCAA season touchdown record by a freshman), linebacker Curtis Lofton (who led the team in tackles) and defensive end Auston English (who led the the conference in sacks for much of the season).
I said at the time the pieces were in place for a repeat as Big 12 Champions, and I was right on. The Sooners finished 11-2 and beat Missouri handily in the Big 12 Championship game. If not for an early-game injury to Sam Bradford against Texas Tech, this write-up might be in anticipation of a National Championship appearance.
Oklahoma's offense ranks 18th in the nation in total yards and 3rd in scoring while the defense ranks 20th in points allowed with 20.2 per game.
The Sooners dominated early, leading the nation in scoring with blowout wins over North Texas, Utah State, Tulsa and Miami. They struggled early in Big 12 play, falling at Colorado after leading by 17 and going scoreless for the 1st half against Iowa State. But big wins over Texas and Missouri put them in control of their destiny. After the aforementioned hiccup at Texas Tech, Oklahoma blew out OSU in the Bedlam game then captured the conference crown by ending Missouri's National Championship hopes.
Key offensive players include Bradford, who led the nation in passing efficiency, the runningback duo of Patrick and Brown and tight ends Joe Jon Finley and Jermaine Gresham.
Key defensive players include Lofton and English, as mentioned above, and hard-hitting safety Nic Harris. Also crucial will be the inside tandem of DeMarcus Granger and Gerald McCoy, two primary factors in OU being ranked as a top 15 team against the run.
Gameday MatchupThe Tostitos Fiesta Bowl figures to be one of the better games on this year's somewhat lackluster bowl slate. Two teams with legitimate National Championship sights at various points in the season meet for the first time since 1982 when the Mountaineers went into Norman and surprised the Sooners behind the arm of Jeff Hostetler.
Many of the individual match-ups tend to favor the Sooners, it seems. Oklahoma is one of the better teams in the nation against the run, and several would refer to West Virginia as somewhat of a one-dimensional team. In addition, the OU offense has the ability to get the ball downfield, something that has hurt WVU at times this year.
But all of that is overlooking the fact that White and Slaton are two of the most dynamic players in all of college football. Though Oklahoma's defense has plenty of speed, it's difficult to prepare for such homerun threats. West Virginia will hope to find seams the way OSU's Zac Robinson did much of the 1st half of the Bedlam game. The primary difference between White and Robinson, though, is that if White gets free, he won't be caught.
Auston English will return for OU, but he's known for his pass-rushing abilities. Defensive ends playing their assignments and tackling will be keys. If the Sooners don't tackle in space, their defense will have a long day. West Virginia won't throw often, something that makes many think the loss of Reggie Smith won't be big for Oklahoma. But those people forget how good Smith is in run support.
On the other side of the ball, the Sooners might not have as much success pounding the ball the way they did against Missouri. They'll keep West Virginia honest, but look for the Sooners to take opportunities to go downfield whenever possible. The offensive line has been a strength in pass blocking, and they'll need to recognize complicated WVU blitzes. If they give Bradford time to throw, Oklahoma should be able to pick up big plays.
West Virginia will likely get free for a couple of big plays of their own, but when it's all said and done, the Sooners strengths should win out if fundamental lapses in ball control and tackling don't arise. The Mountaineers probably don't have the weapons to exploit OU's biggest weaknesses.
Prediction: Oklahoma 38, West Virginia 28