Wednesday, January 2

La Fiesta Bowl - Spanish for "OMG The Other Bowls Are So Stupid, Let's Take Advantage of Them"

"La Fiesta" is Spanish for "The Party" so this is basically the Party Bowl. And I don't know about you, but when I think "party" I think of states like West Virginia and Oklahoma, sometimes called the Vegas of the Plains States. Trust me when I say, what happens in Oklahoma stays in Oklahoma. On the other sideline, you might know the state of West Virginia from popular Hollywood movies such as Deliverance.

Fiesta Time!

While the Rose and Orange Bowls spent the first Sunday in December trying to get as poor a matchup as they could get away with, the Fiesta smiled away as one of the best teams in the nation was passed over by the BCS Championship game to remain in its tie-in with the Fiesta, and an exciting conference champion without a tie-in was twice passed over in favor of far less appealing teams. And so the Fiesta got Oklahoma and West Virginia, probably the best collection of talent outside of the national title game.

Oklahoma (by Coach Lawrence)

From 2000-04, Oklahoma won 60 games and appeared in three national championship games, winning one. The 2005 campaign was an 8-4 disappointment, but last season Oklahoma was back on track finishing 11-3 despite losing a dramatic Fiesta Bowl to the Boise State Broncos. With a great group of running backs and wide receivers and an improved defense, they seemed just a quarterback away from winning a national title.

Enter Sam Bradford. The freshman compiled a 180.5 QB efficiency rating, tops in the nation among starters. Allen Patrick returned to be complimented by freshman DeMarco Murray in a running game that averages 191.8 ypg. And in the receiving corps, Juaquin Iglesias and Malcolm Kelly each average over 60 ypg receiving. It's an explosive unit that finished #3 in the nation in points per game, behind only Hawaii and Kansas both of whom faced significantly easier schedules.

On the defensive side, Oklahoma is a group that finished #9 in scoring. They were #8 against the run at just 91 ypg, and given that they were adequate against the pass at 232 ypg and a 117 opposing QB efficiency. DJ Wolfe and Reggie Smith lead a secondary that turned in 19 interceptions, and among the linebacking corps Curtis Lofton leads the team in tackles and added 3 INTs on top of that.

Due to just 8 interceptions thrown, Oklahoma was +9 in turnovers and had an adequate 42.5 punting average. In other words, they're one of the nation's top three offenses, a top ten defense, the nation's most efficient quarterback, and they don't give up anything in the field position game. Impressive.

But the game isn't played on paper. After winning their first four games by an average of 62-12, the Sooners blew a 24-7 lead against Colorado to lose 27-24. It was part inspired play by the Buffs, part complete late-game collapse by Bradford and the offense. The following week, Oklahoma won a close duel with Texas in which both teams brought their A-game and then used a 18-7 4th quarter outburst to reverse a 3rd quarter deficit to Missouri. The Sooners breezed through the next few weeks and appeared on their way to a virtual "national semifinal" with the Big 12 North champion for a ticket to the BCS championship. Missouri completed their end of the deal dismantling Kansas, but Oklahoma saw Bradford go down with a 7-3 lead against Texas Tech... 20 minutes later it was a 27-7 deficit and OU couldn't quite regroup to come back. Bradford returned to post back to back blowouts of Oklahoma State and then-#1 Missouri, but it wasn't enough for voters to rank them above SEC champion LSU.

However, a 2-loss team shouldn't expect to play for the national championship, and Oklahoma should have their heads squarely focused on beating WVU to avoid a second straight Fiesta Bowl loss.

Looking at West Virginia's two losses, a gameplan that Oklahoma can execute becomes evident. The primary focus is to force WVU out of their game - to force the Mountaineers to start passing. The split stats show it clearly: WVU rushes for 322 yards a game when they win and just 146 when they lose, while passing attempts are almost up 50% in losses (just 8 extra yards though, as White isn't a great passer when the defense knows it's coming). Forcing WVU to pass requires two things: Sooners points and shutting down the WVU rushing attack.

Oklahoma has a fantastic front seven and a good pair of safeties. The corners should be in man coverage while the entire front seven and at least one of the two safeties focus on the run. Having the safeties spy White might not be a bad idea given that he's running option with the occasional changeup pass. Stopping the run is the key here; if White hits a big pass or two that's not going to win the game by itself.

I'd blitz all three linebackers frequently and send at least five every play. This kind of traffic is only going to muck up the option game, and the Sooner secondary is fast enough to stop the occasional lost containment play from going to the house. Force Pat White to make quick decisions with his passes, and force Darius Reynaud to get open with his patterns rather than with his track speed. Three and out isn't the only way to stop an offense, and it's not necessarily the best way to think of stopping an offense like West Virginia's. First down pickup, first down pickup, five yard loss, incomplete pass... 3rd and 15 now what? That's as good a way to get stop as any.

The other key is scoring points. If the defense stops White but it's 10-6, they'll just keep patiently trying to open up the ground game. (as has happened a few times this season) At least statistically, West Virginia is better against the pass than the run, so loosening up the defense with a steady diet of Allen and Chris Brown seems a good first option. Bradford is a great playaction quarterback, and a safe way to start throwing the ball would be going to tight end Jermaine Gresham, considered among the top five nationally and a big performer for OU in some key games. As the ground game really gets going, Kelly and Iglesias will be harder and harder for the corners to cover as safeties are needed to stop the Sooner backs. This is old school Oklahoma football, and it's the offense that they've been running most of this season. (Sooners average 41 rushes, 29 passes per game) I like the way their base offense matches up with this Mountaineer defense, and I don't like the 3-3-5 stack's odds of stopping this kind of ground attack.

The Oklahoma offense and defense can work together to limit Pat White's effect on the game, and this is the clearest path to a Sooner victory.

West Virginia (by Coach Pendley)

Man, what a loss to Pittsburgh can do to a season. WVU was in the enviable position of needing to beat a sub-.500 team to make the national title game after a series of losses – Kansas and LSU’s, to be specific - put the Mountaineers in the #2 BCS spot. Of course, that win didn’t happen. Still, at that point WVU was already the Big East champion thanks to the previous week’s win over Connecticut and a 10-2 season in a BCS conference is still something to celebrate over. It’s rough to have a conference championship not feel like enough, but it’s that way in Morgantown. It’s not like WVU is lacking in signature wins, either. They own wins over UConn, Cincinnati, and Mississippi State (yes, that counts).

As for the actual team makeup, it’s a Rich Rodriguez team – at least through this regular season. (He won’t be coaching the bowl game; Bill Stewart will do that.) That means they’re going to have a mobile QB and one hell of a spread running game. Lord only knows what that’s going to do to Big 10 teams in 2008, but for now it’s causing huge headaches locally. For reasons that surpass understanding RB Steve Slaton wasn’t the killer he was in 2006; however, Pat White and RB Noel Devine picked up a lot of the slack.

When running, the Mountaineers will operate out of a spread rushing attack. They’ll throw 3-4 WRs on the exterior in most of their formations; this will force either 3 or 4 players in the secondary to cover the corners (either on man or in zone; allocating fewer players should cause White and/or Jarrett Brown to audible out of the play). With four WRs, the main goal of the formations – forcing the defense to leave no more than seven in the box – is already achieved; three WRs leaves defensive coordinators with an interesting gamble. Do they play the safety up and risk getting caught out of position on a deep pass or play the safety back in an umbrella leaving – once again – seven in the box? Against most offenses it wouldn’t be terrible to leave seven up against that offense (heck, in some cases you’d only want six); however, WVU will leave the RB behind the line forcing defenses to stay in because of a run. That’s normally bad enough in its own right, but since the offense normally features a mobile QB it’s doubly dangerous.

Of course, Pat White was a two-way beast this year, passing with a 150 QB rating and a 12/4 ratio. The yards really aren’t great, but that’s a product of the type of offense that WVU runs. And speaking of running, not only did White run for nearly 1,200 yards and 14 TDs, RB Steve Slaton – remember him? – ran for 1,053 yards and 17 TDs. It gets better. Freshman RB Noel Devine averaged 8.65 ypc and had 8 runs of over 20 yards – in only 60 carries. Oh, and there’s also fullback Owen Schmitt, who averaged a pretty pedestrian 4.73 ypc, but it also a load at 6’3”, 260. Obviously, the passing game isn’t a big deal, but Darius Reynaud is the best WR the ‘Eers have, with nearly 700 yards and 11 TDs on the year.

West Virginia will (likely still) employ the 3-3-5 stack. It works well for them because most of the teams WVU faces don’t have incredibly strong offensive lines. This way the defense can focus on using its speed to create plays, and not on brute strength. Shockingly, the biggest deficit you’d figure this kind of D would have is in run defense, but WVU allowed only 2.91 ypc – and UConn was the only team to top 200 yards on the ground. The pass D was a little more suspect, but that’s entirely a relative measure. The 15/13 ratio is nothing to sneeze at – and yes, that did fuel the +12 turnover margin for the season.

So here’s WVU’s problem; they haven’t faced a team this fast on both sides of the ball this year. Oklahoma will fly to the ball, likely in hopes to prevent White and Slaton from having a ton of big runs. That being said, they haven’t faced a QB even remotely like White, and the closest comparison – Texas A&M’s Steven McGee – didn’t have a bad game. In addition, mobile QBs had the best success against the Oklahoma front 7; TAMU, Oklahoma State, and even Baylor (!) had success with a running QB. And White, Slaton, Schmitt, and Devine are better than all those guys.

More importantly, what WVU doesn’t want to do is get down big early to Oklahoma; they need a strong effort on both sides of the ball, but they need to establish their running game early. White’s not going to have a lot of success passing to Reynaud and the rest of the receivers; there are more quality DBs than you can shake a stick at in the OU secondary. Don’t forget the passing game entirely, but those guys may spend most of their time blocking in the first quarter. In addition, since OU will likely keep 8 in the box unless told otherwise, I want to see Schmitt get a lot of snaps early.

What I really don’t want to see from the offense is a ton of lateral movement, especially early; OU will crush them if they try that. See the hole and break through it, one move and just go. Everyone in the backfield has the speed to get well downfield, but juking behind the line is just an excuse for OU to rack up their TFL totals. If you’re going to run laterally, wear out the front seven first.

On defense, speed kills. The good news for WVU is that they won’t have to face a mobile QB, but the Sooners’ Allen Patrick and DeMarco Murray are both quality players. Of those guys, Murray scares me more – so thank god he’s not playing. Patrick is a more pedestrian back, and his backup Chris Brown isn’t anything to write home about. WVU should be able to win this; keep Reed Williams aware of the back rotations, because he’s going to need to be on board.

On defense, I want to Xerox Georgia’s gameplan against Hawaii and staple it to the inside of all my defense’s helmets. It’s likely that WVU won’t be able to make a ton of plays against Sam Bradford and his 70% completion rate, but bang the hell out of the WRs as soon as they make the catch. Bring pressure; WVU got 36 sacks this year for a reason, and they’ll need to keep Bradford’s uniform from being clean early and often. Unlike UGA, WVU will likely need to bring some additional pressure. Fortunately, that’s not the end of the world; unlike Hawaii, OU really only has two primary WRs, so I want to ideally shut them both down. Failing that, shutting down Malcolm Kelly only will work, as he’s the deep play threat.

That leads into the next point; shorten the game a bit. That’ll mean consistent drives on the ground and keeping OU players inbounds. I’m not the biggest fan of McAfee’s, and the last thing I want to do is get into a punting match with Oklahoma, because the Mountaineers won’t win that. It’ll also help to end up +1 or +2 in the turnover battle, which is at least kind of likely; Bradford doesn’t throw a lot of picks, but WVU just doesn’t pass much at all. Force fumbles when you can, win time of possession, and win field position. The rest should come.