January 1, 2008

Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma vs. West Virginia

Fiesta Bowl: Who has the edge? | Bowl Central | Bowl schedule

Oklahoma (11-2) vs. West Virginia (10-2)

WHEN: 8 p.m., Wednesday.
WHERE: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
TV: FOX (Matt Vasgersian play-by-play, Pat Haden and Terry Donahue analysts)
THE LINE: Oklahoma by 6.5
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Oklahoma 6-2; West Virginia 6-1
RECORD VS. BCS TOP 25: Oklahoma 3-0; West Virginia 2-1
BCS RANK: Oklahoma 4th; West Virginia 9th
SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Oklahoma 31st; West Virginia 33rd
COACHES: Oklahoma Bob Stoops (4-4 in bowls); West Virginia Bill Stewart (interim; first bowl)
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Some observers felt OU was the best two-loss team in the country and should have gotten the chance to play in the national championship game. The Sooners get the chance to prove that point to some degree. Meanwhile, the West Virginia Mountaineers' response to the absence of coach Rich Rodriguez may give an indication to whether they will remain a national championship contender in future years or fall back among the common folk.
KEY STATS: West Virginia's spread offense has produced an average of 292.9 rushing yards per game to rank fourth in the nation. That sets up an interesting matchup with Oklahoma's run defense, which allows an average of just 91.9 yards per game to rank eighth in the country.
KEEP AN EYE ON: West Virginia running back Steve Slaton, who is so good that he has rushed for 1,053 yards and 17 touchdowns in what has been described as an "off" year. Despite any disappointments this year, Slaton remains a dangerous player who is capable of scoring on long runs. The Mountaineers will likely need some big plays to defeat the Sooners, and Slaton can provide them.

Like hitting .300 in baseball or averaging 20 points per game in basketball, rushing for 1,000 yards is the benchmark that defines a great season for a running back.

That is unless said running back rushed for more than 1,700 yards the previous year. Then, the 1,000-yard mark changes from distinguished to disappointing. Questions arise about what has gone wrong.

That's the burden West Virginia junior tailback Steve Slaton must carry. And wise guys would crack he wouldn't carry it as far as he did a year ago.

Slaton entered the 2007 season as a Heisman Trophy contender, and in some minds the favorite after setting a school record in 2006 with 1,744 rushing yards. But this year's total of 1,053 yards, while excellent by most standards, is the lowest of his three seasons. Slaton - who finished third in the nation in rushing last season - isn't even the leading rusher on his team.

Quarterback Pat White leads the Mountaineers with 1,185 rushing yards.

That shouldn't be alarming. White is a marvelously gifted athlete who rushed for more than 1,600 yards a year ago.

What is alarming is that Slaton, who exceeded 100 yards in 10 games during the '06 season, reached triple figures (103 yards vs. Cincinnati) just once in the last five games of 2007. That doesn't bode well for a Fiesta Bowl matchup against an Oklahoma defense that ranks seventh in the nation against the run.

Slaton's declining production is a big reason perhaps the primary one that West Virginia is playing in the Fiesta Bowl rather than the BCS national championship game.

Slaton carried only nine times for a mere 11 yards in the shocking 13-9 loss to Pittsburgh, which knocked the Mountaineers out of the BCS national championship game. Trying to mount a comeback against Pittsburgh, the Mountaineers reached the Pittsburgh 26-yard line with four minutes remaining and faced fourth-and-three.

Slaton carried inside and gained 2 yards.

Yet while Slaton's production has declined, his confidence has not.

"I think it's been a good season for me," he said at this week's Fiesta Bowl press conference. "I think I've shown more versatility this year. I think I've shown a lot of character for me to have the years I've had and then have this year, showing that I'm a winner."

Still, Slaton, who has 38 fewer carries than he did a year ago, is clearly not as explosive as he was in '06. He has had two runs longer than 40 yards this season. Last year he had 10 such runs. With no reports of injury, the theories for Slaton's decline are fewer holes and fewer attempts.

All-American and Rimington Award-winning center Dan Mozes completed his eligibility last year. As a result, the Mountaineers' offensive line just isn't as good this season as it was a year ago.

Also, dazzling freshman Noel Devine, who averages 8.7 yards per carry, has no doubt taken some opportunities away from Slaton.

But through it all, Slaton didn't complain, which former coach Rich Rodriguez noted before Rodriguez left to take the head coach job at Michigan.

"There is not a problem with Steve's attitude or work ethic," Rodriguez said last month. "He's probably been frustrated at times. Everybody keys on the tailback. He hasn't gotten loose sometimes.

"He didn't have the production he had last year, but he still had a good year. He just didn't have the year he had by the standards of last year."

Whether he'll return to raise those standards next year is in question. If he returns for his senior season, Slaton could join a very short list of Division I-A players to rush for 1,000 yards in four seasons. However, he's considering entering the NFL Draft if he projects to be a first-round choice.

"That's the biggest thing is where I would be," Slaton said in Phoenix. "After that, I haven't really sat down and thought about it."

Most projections have Slaton going no higher than a second-round pick. That shouldn't be disappointing, but rushing for 1,053 yards shouldn't be, either.

Fiesta Bowl: Olin Buchanan breaks it down
Oklahoma run offense vs. West Virginia run defense
EDGE: Oklahoma Oklahoma has a massive offensive line, which is anchored by 352-pound junior guard Duke Robinson. And although the Sooners lost breakaway threat DeMarco Murray to a knee injury earlier this season, hard-running Allen Patrick ensures the running game is in good shape. Underappreciated but not unproductive, Patrick averaged 5.8 yards per carry en route to gaining 928 yards and scoring eight touchdowns. West Virginia ranks 15th in the nation in run defense. However, the Mountaineers allowed the last two backs they faced Pittsburgh's LeSean McCoy and Connecticut's Donald Brown - to exceed 100 yards rushing. Linebacker Reed Williams leads West Virginia with 98 tackles.
Oklahoma pass offense vs. West Virginia pass defense
EDGE: Oklahoma Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford set an NCAA freshman record with 34 touchdown passes this season and threw only seven interceptions. Bradford completed 70.1 percent of his attempts and threw for 2,879 yards while leading the nation in passing efficiency. Wide receivers Juaquin Iglesias and Malcolm Kelly combined for 109 catches and more than 1,600 yards. West Virginia allowed just 13 touchdown passes while grabbing 15 interceptions. Three players have three interceptions. Perhaps more importantly, the Mountaineers were among the national leaders with 37 sacks. Linebacker Marc Magro and defensive end Johnny Dingle posted eight each. OU allowed just 11 sacks all season.
West Virginia run offense vs. Oklahoma run defense
EDGE: West Virginia West Virginia is one of just three Division I-A teams that produced two 1,000-yard rushers. Quarterback Pat White gained 1,185 yards and Slaton had 1,053. Yet, speedy freshman Noel Devine averaged a team-best 8.7 yards per carry while rushing for 519 yards in a reserve role. Oklahoma has held nine opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing. Linebacker Curtis Lofton has posted 142 tackles.
West Virginia pass offense vs. Oklahoma pass defense
EDGE: Oklahoma It's no secret West Virginia prefers to run out of its version of the spread. But just because the Mountaineers don't often choose to pass doesn't mean they cannot. White completed 68 percent of his attempts for 1,548 yards and 12 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Darius Reynaud, who has caught at least five passes in eight games, is the Mountaineers' leading receiver with 59 catches with 11 touchdowns. Oklahoma has proven vulnerable to the pass on several occasions this season. The Sooners allowed more than 300 yards passing to Tulsa, Texas, Missouri and Texas Tech. To make matters worse, cornerback Reggie Smith is out with a broken toe. Smith's replacement, Lendy Holmes, is reportedly academically ineligible. Still, OU has a solid pass rush led by defensive end Auston English, who has 9 sacks.
Oklahoma special teams vs. West Virginia special teams
EDGE: West Virginia OU's best return men Smith on punts and Murray on kickoffs are out with injuries. Kicker Garrett Hartley has converted 10 of 12 field-goal attempts with a long of 53 yards. Devine is dangerous for West Virginia on kickoffs and Vaughn Rivers averages almost 11 yards per punt return. Pat McAfee is exceptional as a punter and kicker. He has converted 11 of 15 field goals and is 9-for-10 between 30 and 49 yards. However, he has missed his last three tries, which included attempts from 20 and 32 yards.
Oklahoma coaching staff vs. West Virginia coaching staff
EDGE: Oklahoma Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is 97-21 in nine seasons in Norman. That includes five Big 12 championships and a national title. Stewart, West Virginia's interim head coach, was 8-25 in three seasons at VMI (1994-96) in his only years as a head coach.
Oklahoma will win if
The Sooners' big front four must control the line of scrimmage and the linebackers can't bite on fakes in order for OU to contain the West Virginia running game. Offensively, OU's huge line must give Bradford time to find his receivers. The Sooners have won every game in which Bradford has played well.
West Virginia will win if
The Mountaineers must capitalize on their scoring opportunities with touchdowns. In its two losses, West Virginia failed in the red zone. The Mountaineers managed just one TD in four red zone opportunities in their loss to South Florida and got just one TD in three red zone chances against Pittsburgh. They also have to avoid turnovers. They committed nine turnovers in their two losses. White, Slaton and/or Devine will have to make big plays.
Maybe this should be the "ex factor," as in how will West Virginia play without former head coach Rich Rodriguez? Will the Mountaineers be sluggish without their former coach, or will they be determined to excel without him? There seemingly is more news about West Virginia threatening to sue Rodriguez to pay a $4 million buyout than there is on the team's Fiesta Bowl appearance. That might actually prove a positive influence.
The picks
Buchanan's pick: Oklahoma 34-24 Other Rivals.com expert picks:
Mike Huguenin, national college editor: Oklahoma 35-24
Steve Megargee, national college football writer: Oklahoma 27-24
Bill King, Rivals Radio host: Oklahoma 30-21
Check out the rest of the Rivals.com Expert Picks.

Olin Buchanan is national college football senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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