MORGANTOWN, WV – For the Oklahoma Sooners, 1-2 after their first three games of 2016, to realistically make it back into the College Football Playoff discussion, they’d have to make sure of three things: win every remaining game, win almost all of those games convincingly and take advantage of mistakes from other teams – in front of them on the field and above them in the rankings.
Exactly like what happened tonight against the No. 14 Mountaineers – and exactly like what has happened around the Sooners in college football in the past eight days.
While the scoreboard showed that the Sooners dominated from beginning to end, racing out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead and building a 27-point halftime bulge before doubling up West Virginia in the end, what allowed OU to build such a big lead had as much to do with the profligacy and carelessness of its opponent as it did with the Sooners’ enormous talent on offense. (Don’t get me wrong: Oklahoma’s juggernaut of an offense had a huge part in it as well.)
Tonight, the latest team that helped the Sooners get back into the Playoff picture was the one lined up across from the Crimson and Cream, wearing all blue uniforms and turning over the ball at will to make their head coach, Dana Holgorsen, see red all night. Oklahoma’s first possession ended after just four offensive plays and 15 yards gained, but Austin Seibert’s punt was muffed by West Virginia wide receiver Gary Jennings, with the Sooners recovering at the 34. With that reprieve, Oklahoma only needed six plays to cash in, with running back Samaje Perine, who ran for 160 yards tonight, plunging in from two yards out for a 7-0 lead.
The turnover turned out to act as the catalyst in turning the Sooners offensive and defensive units into runaway John Deere plows on the snow-dusted field of Milan Puskar Stadium. After forcing a three-and-out, the Sooners only needed three plays to break through once again, with a quick out from quarterback Baker Mayfield to receiver Dede Westbrook becoming a 75-yard catch-and-run after Westbrook broke a couple of tackles near the line of scrimmage and racing down the right sideline to score.
Oklahoma forced another punt from the Mountaineers, then turned to the running game to put the game away early. Seven of the nine plays on the drive to go up 21-0 were runs, with Joe Mixon carrying six times for 47 yards. Mixon, who ran for 147 yards, carried the ball on four straight plays at one point, moving the Sooners from West Virginia’s 35 to the five. On only the second pass of the drive, Mayfield hit receiver Jeffery Mead for a five-yard score and pretty much put an end to the competitive nature of the game.
Any hope the Mountaineers had in clawing back into the game was ended by its profligacy once more. As much as Perine and Mixon were stars in the backfield, Mountaineers back Justin Crawford was on his way to having an even bigger night than the both of them combined, and his consecutive jaunts of 29 and 36 yards to start West Virginia’s next drive helped move the offense into the red zone. His third carry of the drive, with the Mountaineers at the Oklahoma 11, started to look as promising as the first two, as he exploded up the middle and looked to have a real shot at getting into the end zone. However, linebacker Jordan Evans was able to pop the ball loose from Crawford at the five, with cornerback Jordan Parker recovering the fumble at the four.
Crawford ended up rushing for 331 yards – the third-most yards ever gained on the ground in a single game by a Mountaineer – but the fumble, unfortunately, stuck out even more as the astronomical yards total.
Eight plays later, the Sooners were up 28-0, with Perine and Mixon accounting for 85 of the 96 yards gained on the drive. Mixon plunged in from five yards to complete the drive. The trend of West Virginia generosity immediately turning into Oklahoma ruthlessness continued again, with WVU quarterback Skyler Howard fumbling the center-quarterback exchange at the OU 3-yard line on a third-and-goal, with the Sooners recovering. From 97 yards away this time around, the Sooners made the upcoming drive the Samaje Perine show, as all 11 offensive plays on the drive were Perine runs. (OU gained 30 yards on the drive on two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls on the Mountaineers.) Perine covered 77 yards, with his nine-yard scoring run putting the Sooners up 34-0 with 2:26 left in the half.
Oklahoma took full advantage of the mistakes made on the field while, unintentionally, playing off the mistakes that other teams have made to put the Sooners in a pretty good position to make the College Football Playoff. Last week, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Clemson and No. 4 Washington all lost, giving the Sooners a lifeline and an unlikely pathway into the Playoff discussion. Two days ago, the team ranked No. 5 in this week’s Playoff rankings, Louisville, was humbled by Houston, the team that gave Oklahoma its first loss of this season. That result helps the Sooners twofold: not only will the Cardinals’ loss allow them to move closer to the top four in next week’s rankings, but Houston’s win will probably allow the members of the Playoff Committee to look even more favorably at Oklahoma’s loss to the Cougars in the season opener and not hold that against them too much.
After a week off, Oklahoma plays its final game of the regular season, and will do so against a team that, more than likely, will be in the top 10 of the Playoff rankings. It also happens to be against a big rival, the Oklahoma State Cowboys. With the game played on Dec. 3 – the same day as prominent conference title games – and with the Pokes also in position to win a conference championship, the matchup in Norman will turn out to be a de facto Big 12 Championship Game. On that day, the Sooners will look to make a statement and take advantage of defeating another top team and make a Playoff statement.
Oh, and they might rely on other teams that day and take advantage of possible slip-ups to take their position in college football’s Final Four. If tonight’s game and this past week across college football are any indications, Oklahoma will be ready to pounce. Big time.