Oklahoma defeated West Virginia, 44–24, in a chippy game in Norman on Saturday afternoon. Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield threw for 320 yards, while the Oklahoma defense forced three fourth-quarter turnovers to seal its first conference win and fourth overall. Below are three thoughts on both teams’ Big 12 opener:
1. Eric Striker is a menace
The fifth-year senior linebacker has emerged as one of the nation’s most fearsome pass rushers. His forced fumble with 9:37 remaining in the fourth quarter was the game’s single biggest play, allowing linebacker Jordan Evans to rush the ball 40 yards and give the Sooners a 41-24 lead.
Striker also was outstanding in pursuit of running backs Wendell Smallwood and Rushel Shell and terrorized West Virginia QB Skyler Howard all afternoon, racking up 2 sacks and the forced fumble that sealed the contest. He finished with a career-high 13 tackles.
If he maintains this pace, Striker may be a first-team All America linebacker at season’s end.
2. Oklahoma can trust Baker Mayfield … but should trust SamajePerine more than him.
Without a quarterback controversy for the first time in three seasons, Oklahoma is set with Mayfield, whose arm is big enough to take shots downfield and awareness strong enough to flush the pocket under pressure.
The Sooners allowed West Virginia to claw back to within three points after taking a 24–7 lead into halftime, but Mayfield quickly found Duron Neal 71 yards down the field to nudge their lead back to 10. Outside of an egregious interception to West Virginia’s Karl Joseph at 11:19 of the fourth quarter, Mayfield’s composure was notable against a Mountaineers defense that brought ample pressure throughout the game.
Mayfield excels at escaping the pocket and throwing on the run. His stellar play didn’t make the lack of touches for running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon any less confusing. Perine wasn’t heavily used until Oklahoma built a three-score lead in the fourth quarter, while Mixon—who has been stellar as a change-of-pace back after a season-long suspension in 2014—did little after his 35-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
With West Virginia blitzing as frequently as it did, it made sense for Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley to allow Mayfield to exploit single coverages downfield. But with Perine—who ran for over 1,700 yards and set the single-game FBS rushing record yards as a freshman—not receiving any notable red zone touches, Riley may have been in for some postgame criticism if not for the big plays from its defense.
That said, the Sooners finished with 44 points. There’s not that much to criticize.
3. Oklahoma may play spoiler in the Big 12. West Virginia won’t.
The Sooners racked up an astounding six 15-yard penalties in the first quarter alone (five on one drive) while West Virginia’s vaunted defense showed cracks facing its first established offense of the season.In particular, the Mountaineers struggled to apply pressure on Mayfield when defensive coordinator Tony Gibson wasn’t dialing up blitzes for safety Karl Joseph and linebacker Nick Kwiatkowski.
Couple the defensive issues with the struggles of Howard, who routinely overthrew open receivers over the middle and self-immolated in the fourth quarter with a fumble and two interceptions, and the Mountaineers will need Shell and Smallwood (who combined for 183 yards on the afternoon) to anchor their offense.
Oklahoma, conversely, could play spoiler as the season continues if it limits penalties and continues to turn opposing offenses over. In addition, the Sooners’ versatility on offense should allow them to keep pace with high flyers like TCU and Baylor.