MORGANTOWN, W.Va.– The West Virginia University football team kicks off Big 12 action on Saturday against the Oklahoma Sooners. The game will be the Mountaineers first road test of the season.
Holgorsen isn’t concerned about opening the conference on the road.
“We know what we are getting into, just like anything else,” he said. “We have a bunch of guys on our team that have been to Norman. They were on this same trip two years ago. They played against the Sooners for the last three years, and they have familiarity with who they are, their personnel and what their stadium looks like.”
Oklahoma is a defensive team, and Holgorsen doesn’t expect this year to be any different.
“They look like they are as good as they have been on defense,” he said. “(Defensive Coordinator) Mike Stoops has been there for a while. (Head coach) Bob Stoops has a hand in the defense as well.
“It’s the same type of scheme that they used against us last year, and they have almost the same players that they had against us last year. We know we have our work cut out for us. They are big. They are physical. They want to stop the run. They have no problem playing man coverage with the talented athletes that they have on the back end.”
The Sooners have some unfamiliar faces on the offensive side of the ball. (Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach) Lincoln Riley came in from East Carolina, and Baker Mayfield is Oklahoma’s new quarterback.
Holgorsen believes that Mayfield is a playmaker and can dazzle fans.
“He is fun to watch,” he said. “He keeps it alive as good as anyone in the country. He has a talented, live arm. He can also run the ball, so it starts with him.”
Holgorsen sees some similarities between WVU’s quarterback Skylar Howard and Mayfield.
“They are both a little undersized,” Holgorsen said. “Neither one of them was recruited very hard out of what is pretty good Texas high school football. They both play with a chip on their shoulder, and they are very mobile. They have good arms, and they are accurate. They like to play the game. Both are exciting.”
The Mountaineers’ coach knows the Sooners have a dangerous running game.
“We know that they have talented running backs,” Holgorsen said. “We saw the (sophomore Samaje) Perine guy go for over 200 (yards) on us last year. It was the difference in the game, especially in the second half.”
Holgorsen believes he learned from last season’s loss and is capable of stopping Oklahoma’s run.
“I think we are more capable of being able to stop the run now, then we were at that point with the evolution of this defense a year ago,” he said.
Holgorsen and Riley’s relationship evolved back during their Texas Tech days. Much like Holgorsen, Riley too installed an air raid to Oklahoma’s game, but both have given different meanings to the air raid style.
“He has evolved it in his own way,” Holgorsen said. “In my own way, I have. We haven’t been on the same staff in eight years, so it has been awhile.
“I think we will see a constant evolution based on o-line having more experience and staff continuity developing. He is working with (assistant head coach) Cale Gundy for the first time. He is working with (offensive line coach) Bill Bedenbaugh for the first time in 10 years. He is working with (outside receivers coach) Dennis Simmons.”
Oklahoma’s wide receivers have talent and embody Riley’s style.
“The receivers are talented, Holgorsen said. “They can make plays down field. Sterling Shepard is as good as it gets. He is another senior that has made plays, and he is as good as any receiver in the country. He reminds me a lot of the (Tyler) Lockett kid from Kansas State. He is the same type of guy, and is maybe a little bit undersized, but he can make plays down field. He is good in the return game as well.”
Even though the Sooners have a tough defense, Tulsa managed to get 603 yards of total offense against them. Holgorsen doesn’t have an answer to what happened that game but believes they are still a force to reckon with.
“Defensively, they played great against Tennessee,” he said. “Its two different defenses that you watched against Tennessee and what you watched against Tulsa. I think everybody would rather have Tennessee’s guys then Tulsa’s guys.
“Tulsa does have one good receiver, but Tennessee has been recruiting at such a high level for the last three or four years. They have a lot of players running around out there, and Oklahoma shut them down. They jumped on them earlier and kept them out of the game for almost three quarters. Did they relax? There is probably an element to that. You can say the same thing for us in our games, too.”
The Sooners’ defense returns redshirt junior cornerback Zack Sanchez, who did a good job stopping Kevin White last year.
“He is a good player,” Holgorsen said. “He went toe-to-toe with Kevin the whole game. He got Kevin a couple of times. Kevin got him a couple of times. He’s a ball hawk. He has a bunch of interceptions. He’s going to get thrown at a lot just because of the nature of what they do defensively.”
Holgorsen believes WVU’s offensive line better get ready for Oklahoma’s pass rush.
” We did a poor job at pass protecting, and that is something that has been addressed with our offense,” he said. “I’m pretty anxious to get out there and work on it for the next three or four hours because having (senior linebacker Eric) Striker, (senior defensive end Charles) Tapper and a couple of those safeties coming off the edge is going to be a whole different speed. It was last year, and it is again this year.”
Holgorsen credits redshirt sophomore Elijah Wellman’s blocking for the success of the run game against Maryland. The Mountaineers will need more from him against the Sooners.
“He blocked better than I have seen him,” Holgorsen said. “If you want to write about him scoring a touchdown, then go ahead. That’s fine. That’s good. That’s good for him, but we are a little more interested with him working good pad level and being pointed in the right direction.
“We want him to block the right guy, and we want him to do it with great pad level and finish the block. That is way more important than him slipping into the end zone and catching an uncontested pass.”
Holgorsen is hoping WVU’s performance in the backfield carries over when they travel to Norman.
“It would be nice,” he said. It’s a lot easier to call a run play and get 15 or 20 yards than anything else.”
Holgorsen thinks junior running back Wendell Smallwood had the best game of his career against Maryland.
“Wendell had his best game since he’s been here,” Holgorsen said. “He was explosive out of the backfield.”
The head coach credits his offensive line to both Rushel Shell and Smallwood’s success.
“Again, our o-line did a relatively good job,” Holgorsen said. “They did a really good job in run blocking. (Redshirt senior tight end) Cody (Clay) and Elijah (Wellman) did some good things as well.
“We want to be able to run the ball, when they give us the numbers to run the ball. There is going to be a lot of times this Saturday where they are going to try and take away the run. We have to be creative and figure out how to have production in the run game even when they try to stop it.”
One thing the Mountaineers had to do before traveling to Oklahoma is change their signals.
“We had to change all of our signals,” Holgorsen said. “We had to change all of our cadences. That’s always an issue with Big 12 opponents that know you as well as you know them, and they know us. We have been preparing for this for over a year now. We constantly have to keep changing things.”
Holgorsen wasn’t fazed that the Mountaineers cracked the AP’s Top 25 this week.
“Our goal was to be 3-0,” he said. “We cruised past the non-conference portion of our schedule to meet our goal of a 3-0 record. We are anxiously awaiting Big 12 football. Our team is in a good place. We are healthy. We continue to improve. I think we are in a good spot.”