OU first Big 12 foe for WVU

MORGANTOWN – As if West Virginia’s non-conference slate of games isn’t tough enough, the old gold and blue open Big 12 Conference play taking on an Oklahoma team that is expected to be one of the four teams selected to challenge for the national title in January.

For the second season in a row, WVU opens league play against the Sooners. A year ago, the Mountaineers traveled to Norman and played well, but still came out on the short end of a 16-7 score.

This year’s OU team, however, returns seven starters on offense and nine on a defense that limited WVU to 387 total yards (169 rushing) and one touchdown by Dreamius Smith of 75 yards that came at the 8:54 mark of the first quarter.

The Sooners’ defense and rushing attack, which finished with 316 yards on 57 carries, took over the game from that point. Running back Brennan Clay, who accounted for 170 of those rushing yards on 22 totes of the pigskin, is gone, but OU will have plenty of weapons to replace him.

Sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight returns after finishing his first season as the Sooners’ starting quarterback with an amazing game against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Knight’s 10-of-20 passing for 119 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions were good enough to keep the Sooners unbeaten in Big 12 play against the Mountaineers, but also gives hope for Mountaineer fans looking at an improved defense.

Also returning will be senior Blake Bell, who was the starting quarterback in eight games, but volunteered to become the team’s tight end this spring, as well as senior placekicker Michael Hunnicutt, who connected on field goals of 44, 21 and 32 yards in the victory last season.

Game number two in conference play finds the Jayhawks from Kansas University paying their second visit to Milan Puskar Stadium.

In perhaps the biggest shocker of the 2013 season, WVU traveled to Lawrence to take on a KU team that had not won in the Big 12 for three years. That 0-27 drought ended, however, thanks to an impressive 315-yard rushing performance that allowed the hosts to come away with a 31-19 win.

The primary architect of that rushing performance, senior James Sims, is gone. But, think twice before placing this game in the win column in 2014.

Head coach Charlie Weis returns eight starters on offense and seven on defense from a team that finished 3-9 overall and 1-8 in league play. Tops among those coming back are sophomore quarterback Montell Cozart and senior running back Brandon Bourbon.

Cozart completed only five of 12 attempts for 61 yards against the Mountaineers last season, but his running ability (214 yards) kept several drives alive and gave the Jayhawks a dual threat under center.

Defensively, the Jayhawks really look improved with the return of linebacker Ben Heeney, nose tackle Andrew Bolton and cornerbacks Dexter McDonald and JaCorey Shepherd.

WVU returns to the road for its third Big 12 contest of the season. The Mountaineers will make their second trek to Lubbock in hopes of gaining a measure of revenge from a Texas Tech program that ended WVU’s dream of an unbeaten season with a 49-14 beatdown in 2012 and then scored the last 14 points of the game a year ago to pull out a 37-27 victory at Mountaineer Field.

It won’t be an easy task, however.

Sophomore quarterback Davis Webb is back and heads a Raiders’ offense that returns nearly everyone, except WVU-killer Jace Amaro, that piled up nearly 600 yards of total offense against the Mountaineer defense in 2013.

Webb made his first-ever start against WVU one to be remembered as the then-freshman completed 36-of-50 attempts for 462 yards and two touchdowns-both to Amaro, who also finished with 136 yards on nine catches.

And, while the loss of Amaro and backup quarterback Baker Mayfield, who transferred to OU during the offseason, will hurt, head coach Kliff Kingsbury will have more than enough weapons to attack any opposing defense.

* While a sweep of all three opening Big 12 games would make every Mountaineer fan happy, the reality is that a 2-1 or even a 1-2 mark is more likely.

Playing the Sooners, or any other team for that matter, in the friendly confines of Milan Puskar Stadium will be a benefit. But, this Sooners’ team has all of the ingredients to be just as talented as the Alabama team that WVU faces in its opener.

Fortunately, the schedule makers gave the old gold and blue a break by giving WVU an open week following that tilt to allow it to get healthier for a Kansas team that will be coming to Morgantown with the confidence that they can beat the Mountaineers.

Making those games a must if WVU wants to put itself in contention for a conference title is the team’s trip to Texas Tech. A 3-9 mark on the road in two seasons in the Big 12 proves that this program struggles on the road and causes fans to doubt that it can succeed when it plays away from Morgantown.