West Virginia, one of the seven unbeaten teams among the Power 5 Conference schools, finally cracked the national top 10 this week
The Mountaineers (6-0, 3-0 Big 12) are coming off impressive wins, especially defensively, against Texas Tech and TCU, surprisingly putting themselves into position to crash the College Football Playoff.
No. 10 West Virginia, which began the season unranked, will get another chance to impress the playoff selection committee Saturday at Oklahoma State (5-2, 3-1) in a noon kickoff from Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla.
"You're only as good as your next game," WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Our team understands that. They're not worried about rankings or preseason; they're only worried about where they're going to be at the end."
West Virginia's single-minded focus has been evident during whippings of Texas Tech and TCU the last two weeks, when it held those two-high powered foes to a total of 27 points. The Red Raiders and Horned Frogs combine to average 48 points per game when they play teams not named West Virginia.
Consider that Texas Tech roared up and down the field last Saturday, scoring 59 points in a loss to Oklahoma a week after falling 48-17 to the Mountaineers.
"They're playing as good as anyone in the conference and maybe comparable to top 10 teams in the country," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said of WVU's defense. "They're multiple with the style of play they use. They tackle well and they play aggressive."
This will be another big test. Oklahoma State has a potent offense, averaging 41.1 points per game, 14th-best in the country. The Cowboys are coming off a 44-20 victory at Kansas, but there were some problems with their usually potent attack.
For starters, the Jayhawks used bracket coverage to hold leading receiver James Washington to one reception for 9 yards. In addition, Kansas often pressured quarterback Mason Rudolph and sacked him five times.
"You're not going to be able to win games getting sacked five times," Gundy said.
Yet the Cowboys did, largely because they found offensive weapons other than Washington, such as slot receiver Jalen McCleskey (seven catches, 129 yards) and freshman running back Justice Hill, who carried 22 times for a career-high 162 yards. That was his third 100-game of the season.
West Virginia is 10th nationally in total offense at 510.0 yards per game, feeding off its defense and its own low-mistake play. Quarterback Skyler Howard was at his most efficient in the win against TCU, completing 16 of 23 passes for 231 yards, with four touchdowns with no interceptions. He is 14th nationally in passing efficiency with a rating of 157.4.
Howard is averaging 9.0 yards per pass attempt, which is 11th in the country, and he'll take his cracks at a Cowboys' defense permitting 267.1 yards a game. Wide receivers Daikeil Shorts Jr. (team-high 31 catches this season) and Jovon Durante each made highlight-reel catches last week.
"We didn't make those catches last year," Holgorsen said.
Mountaineers' running back Rushel Shell has recorded two consecutive 100-yard games. West Virginia continues to average more than 200 yards per game on the ground and should have success against an Oklahoma State defense that has yielded 181.6 rushing yards per game.
West Virginia has committed only eight turnovers in six games, but the Cowboys forced three vs. Kansas last week, creating confusion by dropping linemen into coverage and showing pressure from the back end.
The Cowboys have won three consecutive games to climb near the AP Top 25 after starting the season ranked No. 21. They fell out of the poll after a Week 2 loss to Central Michigan.
Gundy is bidding for his 100th career win while facing two of his former assistants -- Holgorsen and West Virginia offensive coordinator Joe Wickline. The Cowboys won this matchup last season in Morgantown, 33-26 in overtime.
A West Virginia win Saturday would nicely position the Mountaineers for a couple of less-demanding games against Kansas and Texas before a showdown in Morgantown against Oklahoma on Nov. 19.
"It's hard to win in college football," Holgorsen said. "There are a lot of good teams out there that have lost some games. We're fortunate not to be one of those. You've got to celebrate the victories very, very short term and then you've got to get right back to work and worry about the next one."