Sunday November 20th, 2016

No. 9 Oklahoma and No. 14 West Virginia each entered Saturday night in the thick of the conference title race and still alive for the College Football Playoff. Unfortunately for Mountaineers fans, who were amped for one of the biggest games in Morgantown in recent memory, only one team showed up in the first half.

Aided by a bevy of mistakes and mental errors by their opponent, the Sooners jumped all over WVU at the start, leading 21–0 through one quarter. Linebacker Jordan Evans’s pick-six on the first drive of the second half, which made it 41–7, looked like it would seal it, but the Mountaineers made it interesting, lowering the deficit to 13 points with just over 10 minutes left. Oklahoma finished strong from there, eventually securing a 56–28 win.

The result means the Bedlam game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in two weeks will be for the Big 12 title, and the Sooners will have an outside shot at the playoff if they prevail. Meanwhile, the Mountaineers are a Big 12 and playoff contender no longer, and they remain winless against OU since joining the conference.

Here are three thoughts on the game:

1. West Virginia’s collapse in the first half sealed its fate

To put it bluntly, the Mountaineers should be embarrassed by their litany of mistakes and the way they lost their composure in the first half. It quickly became clear WVU wasn’t properly focused for this game. After West Virginia forced Oklahoma to punt on the first possession of the game, Gary Jennings muffed the kick and the Sooners recovered. Down 21–0 in the second quarter, Justin Crawford fumbled at the Oklahoma 4-yard line, and on its next drive, WVU again fumbled inside the 5 (it was QB Skyler Howard this time). The Sooners scored after each turnover—it was 34­–0 after the TD following Howard’s fumble.

This sequence also included penalties by WVU for roughing the kicker, which wiped out an Oklahoma punt, a late hit out of bounds and an unsportsmanlike conduct. On the latter, defensive lineman Christian Brown got into an altercation with an Oklahoma counterpart and then shoved a referee and poked him in the chest. He was lucky not to be ejected.

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Just as disappointing was the way West Virginia’s defense completely broke down. That unit has been the team’s calling card all season. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has earned well-deserved plaudits for constructing a legitimately good D in a conference usually bereft of any, but it hardly put up a fight in the first half against Oklahoma’s ground game. Joe Mixon (who finished with 147 rushing yards and one touchdown) and Samaje Perine (160 yards and two touchdowns) consistently gashed the Mountaineers. With that duo, plus the red-hot combination of quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Dede Westbrook, the Sooners are tough to stop, but West Virginia should’ve been able to put up a better effort at home. Considering the way the Mountaineers roared back in the second half, they must be lamenting the way they started the game, particularly the two turnovers at the edge of the goal line.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

2. With Bedlam looming, Oklahoma’s defense remains problematic

The Sooners’ defense, particularly against the pass, quickly emerged as the team’s weakest point this season. In its 66–59 win over Texas Tech in Week 8, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops' group allowed 854 total yards and an astonishing 734 passing yards. It looked like the unit had improved the past three weeks, but those performances came against Kansas, Iowa State and a Baylor team in the midst of a collapse. Against a potent West Virginia offense on Saturday, Oklahoma again struggled.

Even as OU roared out to its huge lead, the defensive performance wasn’t inspiring. WVU moved the ball with ease at times, particularly on the ground with Crawford (who finished with a whopping 331 yards on 24 carries). In the second half, Howard began having more success through the air as well, and his 37-yard TD pass to Ka’Raun White with 10:06 remaining that cut the deficit to 41–28 had the Sooners sweating. The Mountaineers finished with a 579–485 advantage in total yards.

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Perhaps the second-half struggles can be partially blamed on losing focus with such a big lead, but with Mason Rudolph and the Cowboys’ explosive attack looming (not to mention the playoff committee watching for any signs of weakness), a more complete performance will be necessary in two weeks.

3. Oklahoma carrying the flag for Big 12 in playoff race

With no undefeated or one-loss teams, the Big 12 remains the Power 5 conference most likely to get left out of the playoff. Its hopes rest with whoever wins Bedlam (and thus the conference title), and the conference power brokers have to be rooting for the Sooners. Each team would have two losses with a Bedlam victory, but Oklahoma’s would be stronger, coming to Houston and Ohio State versus Baylor and Central Michigan for Oklahoma State. (The fact that the Cowboys’ “loss” to CMU should’ve been a win may complicate things, but they’d face a tough road regardless.)

The problem is that Oklahoma wouldn’t get in over a one-loss fellow conference champ, and despite the weight given to conference titles, it’s very difficult to imagine the committee slotting OU in ahead of a one-loss, non-Big Ten champion Ohio State; it would even be hard to justify placing the Sooners ahead of a two-loss Ohio State team because of their head-to-head result. Oklahoma’s, and thus the Big 12’s, best shot at making the playoff appears to be chaos in the Pac-12 and Ohio State winning the Big Ten (which would require Penn State losing to Michigan State next week and Ohio State beating Michigan and then Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.) If that sounds murky, it’s because it is; how the playoff committee would handle that end to the season is anyone’s guess.

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