West Virginia football gets no weeks off as it hosts its second ranked opponent in a row in No. 11 Oklahoma State. Kickoff between the Mountaineers and the Cowboys is set for 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.
WVU is coming off arguably its biggest win of the season, and looks to build a win streak coming out of its October bye week. Neal Brown’s team has earned two wins out of the bye, including its first road win since 2019 against TCU and an upset over No. 22 Iowa State.
The Cowboys have emerged as one of the Big 12’s powers in 2021, sitting just behind in-state rival Oklahoma in the league’s standings. Coach Mike Gundy led his team to a blowout win over Kansas — a major bounce back after narrowly falling to Iowa State a week before WVU’s victory over the Cyclones.
This contest is another that Brown likely has circled on the calendar. Since taking the helm in Morgantown in 2019, the head coach has yet to defeat Gundy’s program in their two meetings. Neither has been a blowout, however, as they have been decided by two possessions or fewer.
The negative trend for the Mountaineers goes far beyond Brown’s tenure, though, as they have dropped their last six clashes with the Cowboys. Their last win came behind a Clint Trickett-led offense in 2014, as he threw for a pair of touchdowns while Wendell Smallwood added 132 yards on the ground.
Here are the biggest storylines to keep an eye on this weekend:
WVU is gettin’ goin’ on the ground
West Virginia’s run game was rather dismal to start the season. Despite the return of 1,000-yard rusher Leddie Brown, the Mountaineers averaged just over 70 yards per game in the first half of the season, sitting dead last in the league. They are still at the bottom, but they’re now running for 127.8 yards per game — a massive improvement coming out of the bye week.
Individually, Brown is back near the top of the Big 12’s rushing rankings, sitting No. 8 in yards (642) and second in touchdowns (11) after scoring five since the bye week.
A big part of this resurgence has been a major improvement in the offensive line, especially among the unit’s younger players. True freshman tackle Wyatt Milum earned the team’s offensive lineman of the week award after notching eight knockdowns against Iowa State — a stat normally credited to sophomore center Zach Frazier.
Additionally, the Mountaineers have gotten a major boost on the ground from tight end TJ Banks, who has been thrust into the starting role for the rest of the season after the loss of Mike O’Laughlin. Banks’s newfound spark has caught the eye of his coaches — Neal Brown even said at the beginning of the week that he feels much more comfortable with Banks on the line in the run game than he did at the start of the season.
The rushing boost is also likely aided by a surge in the pass game, aided by a seemingly new-and-improved Jarret Doege. The Big 12’s passing leader was named WVU’s offensive player of the week after Iowa State, when he threw for 370 yards (a WVU career-high), three touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. Doege took advantage of the Mountaineers’ talented receiving corps, as the duo of Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Winston Wright combined for 206 receiving yards and all three of those scores through the air.
For once, Gundy’s Cowboys dominate on defense — not offense
That ground game will be put to the test against the Cowboy defense, which sits atop the Big 12’s standings in the run game.
Malcolm Rodriguez headlines the unit as the top tackler in the Big 12 and the eighth-leading tackler-for-loss in the league. He was a thorn in the Mountaineers’ side in 2020, bringing down seven WVU ball-carriers, including one for a loss.
A large portion of this defensive renaissance is credited to coordinator Jim Knowles, who joined the staff in 2018. Many of the top defenders, like 2020 All-Big 12 second team safety Kolby Harvell-Peel, began their Cowboy careers alongside Knowles that season.
It is November for the Cowboys, and like pretty much all football teams, they are fighting off the injury bug.
“I couldn’t even imagine what this defense would look like if those guys were healthy,” said Jessica Moorey, who covers the Cowboys for okstate.com. “They look so good now, and you add those guys in, I couldn’t even tell you what it would be like. It’s been impressive to watch these guys.”
Third time’s the charm for Spencer Sanders
Spencer Sanders is in his third year as the Cowboys’ starting quarterback — but unfortunate injuries have sidelined the signal-caller in both of his games against the Mountaineers.
That sad streak comes to an end on Saturday as Sanders is slated to get his first start against WVU. His junior campaign has statistically turned out to be his weakest yet, however, as his completion percentage sits at a career-low 59.6, while he sits second-to-last in passing efficiency among Big 12 starters.
Like many teams across the league, the Cowboys have actively worked to break the Big 12 stereotype of a no-defense, primarily-passing conference. 176.9 yards (45 percent) of Oklahoma State’s offensive production every game comes from the ground game, and the bulk of that comes from Utah State transfer redshirt sophomore Jaylen Warren, the Big 12’s fourth-leading rusher.
“I think Jaylen Warren kind of came out and surprised some people,” Moorey said. “He’s been playing really well. He’s just a tough runner.”
The Mountaineers and the 11th-ranked Cowboys kickoff at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. Saturday always starts with an all-new episode of The Neal Brown Show, with airs at 9 a.m. ET on Nexstar stations across West Virginia. It continues with a live edition of Mountaineer GameDay at 10 a.m. ET, followed by another hour of Mountaineer GameDay on AT&T SportsNet at 11 a.m. ET.