This weekend’s must-see game is a heavyweight Big 12 battle between No. 9 Oklahoma (8-2 overall, 7-0 in conference) and No. 14 West Virginia (8-1 overall, 5-1 in conference).
The Mountaineers have never beaten the Sooners since joining the conference in 2012, so they feel like they’re overdue. If the boys from Norman keep their winning streak alive against West Virginia, and their Bedlam game against Oklahoma State, if the Cowboys take care of business against TCU, will determine the conference champion next weekend.
It looked like it was going to be a very long year for coach Bob Stoops’ program after they dropped two of their first three games against Houston and Ohio State. But since losing to the Buckeyes, they’ve won seven straight. Last week, Baker Mayfield completed 20 of his 25 passes for 300 yards and two scores in the Sooners’ 45-24 win over Baylor. As an offensive unit, they racked up 566 total yards against the Bears.
A Heisman Trophy finalist last year, Mayfield has some people saying that his play this season is even better. He’s at the helm of a 15-game winning streak in conference, and Oklahoma has quietly crept back onto the periphery of the College Football Playoffs picture.
Mayfield is aided by an exceptional running game, with Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine keeping defenses off balance. Mixon ran for 187 yards last week, while Perine rushed for 100 more and two touchdowns.
But the straw that stirs OU’s offensive drink is wide receiver Dede Westbrook. Since the arrival of October, when he’d finally healed from an offseason hamstring injury, Westbrook has scored 15 touchdowns – 14 on pass catches and one off of a punt return. Right now, he’s the clear-cut favorite to win the Belitnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver.
Westbrook caught six passes for 88 yards, including two spectacular touchdowns, against Baylor, snapping his streak of six consecutive games with at least 100 receiving yards.
The Mountaineers beat Texas 24-20 last week, but they gave up 536 yards, including 218 on the ground, to the Longhorns. Expect a high-scoring shootout in Morgantown this time around. I was in Norman for last year’s game, a 44-24 OU win, and expect nothing less than another contest where the scoreboard gets a workout.
The Sooners are No. 1 in the nation in passing efficiency and third in total offense. West Virginia has a good defense that has pulled them out of some tough games this year, but if they expect to win their first Big 12 game ever against OU, they better find a way to pressure the quarterback. If not, look for Mayfield and Westbrook to continue their dazzling dash back to playoff contention.
Westbrook’s individual story has been one of ups and downs. He ruptured his small intestines playing high school football and was told by some doctors that he shouldn’t play football again. He eventually returned to the gridiron, but his grades scared away the big-time college programs that were recruiting him. He played well in JUCO as a freshmen at Blinn College, but injured his leg.
He then quit the team, walking away from a full scholarship at Blinn, feeling like he needed to go back home to Cameron, Texas and support his two young children. After dropping out, he realized that he needed to make the most out of his opportunities. And he returned with a vengeance.
As a sophomore at Blinn, he averaged 186 yards receiving per game, accumulated 1,487 yards and 13 touchdowns in only eight games. Suddenly, he was awash in scholarship offers.
Last year, he formed a bond with then-senior Sterling Shepard, who is now playing for the New York Giants. Westbrook decided that he wanted the same success at OU that Shepard experienced, and has obviously put in the work to make that happen.
By the fourth game of this season, he exploded onto the national radar once his hamstring woes dissipated. He lit up TCU in the Sooners fourth game with seven catches for 158 yards, but he really turned heads with the 232 yards and three touchdowns that he racked up against Texas.
Oklahoma has transformed a lost season into one of hope in the same way that Westbrook transformed himself from a JUCO dropout to one of the country’s best receivers.
He’ll look to continue his tear against West Virginia. And if OU wins and inches closer to another Big 12 title, he’ll certainly be one of the main reasons why.