MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Whether it’s a Monday night in Los Angeles in a league that feels like it’s changing overnight or a Friday night in West Virginia in the league that invented this brand of football, we can’t watch a certain kind of game without a chicken-egg debate. Are the offenses amazing? Or do the defenses stink? Rather than engage in that debate—when the answer is clearly yes to both questions—it’s probably better to simply ask another question.
Oklahoma 59, West Virginia 56 absolutely entertained. It had stakes. The victorious Sooners earned the right to play Texas—the only team that has beaten Oklahoma all year—for the Big 12 title next week in Arlington, Texas. It had drama. As West Virginia’s onside kick late in the fourth quarter caromed around a pileup of humanity, it seemed that berth in the title game could go either way. It had controversy. Those West Virginia fans who packed Milan Puskar Stadium to watch quarterback Will Grier and receivers David Sills V and Gary Jennings play their final game in Morgantown will forever believe a Big 12 officiating crew screwed the Mountaineers out of a chance to play for the conference title. (More on that later.)
And whether the offenses were amazing or the defenses were terrible, there was no doubt that we were watching two incredible quarterbacks.
Consider West Virginia’s Grier, facing third-and-18 from his own 45 in the third quarter. He threw a laser beam over the middle toward Gary Jennings. Jennings kept racing forward, not looking back. Finally, his head turned as the ball whistled into his hands in stride. He gained 52 yards. “Jennings didn’t see the ball until it hit him in the gut,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said, briefly turning fanboy over a bit of pure passing pornography before getting back to analyzing the win. Grier scored on a QB sneak three plays later to give West Virginia a 42–38 lead with 1:52 remaining in the third.
Now consider Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, who faced third-and-10 from his own 25 on the ensuing possession. Neither player could afford to allow his offense to bog down. Getting stopped would crush the Sooners. Murray took the snap and flicked his wrist. The ball arced high—higher than any pass Murray threw all night — and dropped over two West Virginia defenders and into the hands of Marquise Brown for a 30-yard gain. On the next play, Brown hauled in a short pass and shook loose for a 55-yard score thanks to some of the tackling that drives the purists so crazy when they watch these games.
Hopefully, in two weeks, Murray and Grier can compare their favorites of the 16 combined touchdowns or the 16 combined converted third downs or the four combined converted fourth downs while dining in New York alongside Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa the night before the Heisman Trophy ceremony. And perhaps Murray will say that his favorite scores had nothing to do with his 364 passing yards or his 114 rushing yards. Perhaps he’ll say his favorites were Oklahoma linebacker Caleb Kelly’s 10-yard fumble return in the second quarter and Curtis Bolton’s 48-yard fumble return with 9:58 remaining in the game.
The oft-criticized Oklahoma defense, which still gave up 704 yards and 7.8 yards a play, provided the Sooners with 14 points. That contribution made all the difference with a spot in the title game on the line. “I don’t really care too much about criticism,” said Sooners defensive end Kenneth Mann, whose sack and strip of Grier set up Bolton’s touchdown. “I know what my brothers can do when we step on the field. I know how we can affect offenses.”
They usually don’t affect them very much. This, after all, is a group that followed giving up 501 passing yards to Oklahoma State by allowing Big 12 bottom feeder Kansas to average 9.7 yards a carry. But Friday, Oklahoma’s defense mixed in scoring and actually bailed out the offense following a lackluster third quarter.
Of course, if you ask someone wearing a flying WV, they’ll tell you the men in stripes bailed out the Sooners. Here’s what happened. With about 11 minutes remaining and West Virginia trailing 52–49, West Virginia’s Kennedy McKoy ripped off what looked like a 72-yard run down the right sideline to the Oklahoma three-yard line. But there was a flag at the Oklahoma 42-yard line.
West Virginia receiver T.J. Simmons was called for blocking Oklahoma cornerback Tre Brown after Simmons had already pushed Brown across the sideline. Simmons blocked Brown over the sideline, then disengaged and re-engaged long after the pair had gone out of bounds. It was definitely against the rules, and if it was a tackler giving a ball-carrier an extra shove that far out of bounds, the flag gets thrown 99 out of 100 times. But the flag rarely gets thrown on a blocker in a similar situation. Who knew Oklahoma defenders being so bad at getting off blocks would wind actually up helping the Sooners? Afterward, Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen tread carefully as he discussed that play and a first-quarter pick call against Sills that took a West Virginia touchdown off the board. “I don’t understand in a game like this how you take those off the board,” Holgorsen said. “I don’t get it. I don’t understand it, I don’t get it, I never will.”
Simmons was equally mystified.
Instead of first-and-goal at the 3, West Virginia had first-and-10 from its own 43. After a make-up pass interference call moved the Mountaineers to the Oklahoma 42, Mann sacked Grier and stripped him, and Bolton picked up the ball and returned it for a touchdown. Grier sat on the ground as Bolton raced away with the ball and West Virginia’s Big 12 title hopes.
It was a defensive play in an offensive game. You can feel free to choose how you want to interpret the word “offensive.” The College Football Playoff selection committee likely will determine that even if the Sooners win the Big 12, their defensive issues should keep them out of the playoff. The committee has made that clear in its previous rankings. Oklahoma’s best shot to make the playoff is pray for a Notre Dame loss at USC on Saturday (not likely) or hope Ohio State beats Michigan—or Northwestern beats whoever wins the Big Ten East in the Big Ten title game—and Alabama beats Georgia in the SEC title game. The committee has stated its preference of Oklahoma over one-loss Ohio State, though that opinion could change if the Buckeyes can beat Michigan. But so far, Ohio State has had defensive problems and problems establishing the run. Oklahoma has worse defensive issues, but the Sooners also may have the best offense in college football.
Would that be good enough to beat Alabama or Clemson? Probably not. Those teams would get the occasional stop against the Sooners, and Oklahoma’s defense likely would allow their offenses to have their most productive games. But Oklahoma can’t control that now. The Sooners can control whether they avenge their only loss and whether they win the Big 12. They aren’t going to worry about the rest.
“At the end of the day,” Murray said, “we made enough stops, we scored enough and we won the game.”
And at the end of the day, we were entertained.