2008 Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma vs. West Va
Oklahoma WR Malcolm Kelly
Oklahoma WR Malcolm Kelly
Posted Dec 30, 2007

Will this be any better than the Sugar and Rose? If Malcolm Kelly and Oklahoma are rolling early in the 2008 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against West Virginia, it could be another long night.

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

January 2nd, 8:00 p.m. ET, Fox

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Forget the BCS Championship game.  This battle between West Virginia and Oklahoma could wind up being the most intriguing of the entire 32-game bowl season.

The Mountaineers and Sooners descend upon Glendale with something to prove, West Virginia for inexplicably gagging to Pittsburgh on Dec. 1, and Oklahoma for losing its last three BCS bowl games, including last year’s Fiesta Bowl to Boise State.  Both programs are awash in skill position talent, coming within a break or two from finishing the regular season at the top of the polls.  While the winner gets an ounce of redemption and a top 10 ranking, the loser will carry the burden of failing to finish strong with it throughout the offseason.  There’ll be plenty at stake in the desert, even if the game isn’t deciding a national title.         

National Rankings
West Virginia Oklahoma
Total Offense
18th  450.50 ypg 17th  451.23 ypg
Total Defense
4th  291.92 ypg 18th  324 ypg
Scoring Offense
11th  38.92 ppg 3rd  43.38 ppg
Scoring Defense
7th  17.25 ppg 9th  18.15 ppg
Run Offense
4th  292.92 ypg 30th  191.77 ypg
Run Defense
15th  107.58 ypg 7th  91.92 ypg
Pass Offense
113th  157.58 ypg 36th  259.46 ypg
Pass Defense
13th  184.33 ypg 67th  232.08 ypg
Turnover Margin
10th  1.00 18th  0.69
West Virginia
West Mich W 62-24
at Marshall W 48-23
at Mary.
W 31-14
E Carolina
W 48-7
at South Fla
L 21-13
at Syra.
W 55-14
Miss St
W 38-13
at Rutgers W 31-3
Louisville W 38-31
at Cincy
W 28-23
W 66-21
L 13-9
North Texas W 79-10
Miami W 51-13
Utah State W 54-3
at Tulsa
W 62-21
at Colorado
L 27-24
vs. Texas W 28-21
Missouri W 41-31
at Iowa State
W 17-7
Texas A&M W 42-14
Baylor W 52-21
at Tex Tech
L 34-27
Oklahoma St
W 49-17
Big 12 Championship
Missouri W 38-17
Position Ratings
relative to each other
WV 5 highest
1 lowest
5 Quarterbacks 4.5
5 RBs 4.5
3.5 Receivers 5
4 O Line 5
4 D Line 4
3.5 Linebackers 4.5
4 Secondary 4
4.5 Spec Teams 4.5
2 Coaching 5

How does West Virginia bounce back after losing the Backyard Brawl to a 28-point dog, squandering a chance to play for a national championship?  It won’t be easy, considering how badly it choked under pressure on Dec. 1, and how hard it’ll be to move forward without head coach Rich Rodriguez and offensive coordinator Calvin Magee, both of whom are now employed by Michigan. 

A month ago, Rodriguez was the unquestioned leader of the program, but today he’s being sued by the University, an awkward turn of events that can’t be helping the focus of the West Virginia players as some, like RB Steve Slaton, will likely look even harder at the possibility of moving on early to the next level.  The Big East champs had gotten a reprieve from its Sept. 28 loss at South Florida, yet couldn’t close the deal versus rival Pitt, losing 13-9.  For the Mountaineers, it’s they’re first Fiesta Bowl since Major Harris was in Morgantown in 1989, and they’re third consecutive January bowl game, beating Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl and Georgia Tech in the 2007 Gator Bowl.                     

Just like the last two years, as QB Patrick White goes, so goes West Virginia.  The junior sat out most of the Pitt game with a dislocated right thumb, which no doubt impacted the final score.  White is expected to play on Jan. 2, an absolute necessity if the Mountaineers stand a chance to deliver an upset.  When he’s out in the open field, zig-zagging through defenders, there’s no more dangerous individual at the college level.  White leads the ‘eers with 1,185 yards rushing, and is also No. 14 nationally in passing efficiency, a dual-threat combination that can close the talent gap at other positions.  No. 5 versus Oklahoma’s No. 8 run defense is one of the most intriguing duels of the postseason.  Sooner starting CB Reggie Smith will not play, nor will his backup Lendy Holmes, so White’s improved passing skills should be on display even more than usual in Arizona.                              

Oklahoma earned an automatic berth in the Fiesta Bowl with its rout of then-No. 1 Missouri in the Big 12 Championship game.  Although the Sooners rolled through their schedule, winning by an average of 25 points, plans for ending the season in New Orleans got derailed by a 45-yard field goal at the end of regulation in Boulder, and a seven-point loss in Lubbock, in which concussed starting QB Sam Bradford played only two possessions.  Two wins over Mizzou wound up not being enough to grab a spot in the title game, as LSU was tabbed as the most deserving of the two-loss teams.  A juicy subplot involves Bob Stoops, one of the game’s premier coaches, who’s lost his last three January bowl games, twice getting ambushed on defense.  His reputation is secure, but it sure would help to avoid a fourth loss in-a-row.    
Go ahead and try to find the weak link on this Oklahoma team.  Well, it’s defending the deep ball, but that’s not West Virginia football.  Once it became obvious that Bradford was a freshman in academics only, the Sooners were a complete team that could run or pass the ball, and play at a high level on defense that’s become a hallmark of the program in the Stoops era.  Oklahoma does have one of the worst punt return units in the Big 12, but good luck exploiting that weakness.  The key has been Bradford, the nation’s leader in passing efficiency, who gives the program the offensive balance it’s lacked since Jason White graduated, teaming up regularly with TE Jermaine Gresham, and WRs Malcolm Kelly and Juaquin Iglesias.  A picture of poise in the pocket, Bradford will play in a few more of these high-profile bowl games before leaving Norman.   

It’s not the national championship. It’s not even the marquee BCS bowl game (the Sugar and Rose appear to be getting more attention). It’s an important game for the future of the two programs, and both teams will play like it.

Players to watch: … Oklahoma will be without explosive freshman RB DeMarco Murray, but the running game won’t skip a beat.  Veteran Allen Patrick excelled down the stretch when his workload increased, running for 202 yards and two scores against Oklahoma State, and 88 yards and a touchdown versus Missouri.  A physical, between-the-tackles runner, he’ll try to keep the good times rolling against a West Virginia defense that allows just 107 yards a game on the ground.  It always helps to be running behind massive G Duke Robinson and one of the toughest offensive lines in America.  On defense, the Sooners will benefit from the healthy return of DE Auston English, who was tearing up the Big 12 before injuring his ankle in the Nov. 3 win over Texas A&M.  Although he may not get many opportunities for sacks, he does have the quickness to prevent the speedy Mountaineers from getting to the outside.  Pencil LB Curtis Lofton, one of the nation’s most instinctive linebackers, in for about 15 tackles and a couple of snot-knocking hits.  The team-leader with 142 stops, he’s never too far from the ball.          

Assuming his thumb doesn’t cause any complications, White will make his share of big plays, but against Oklahoma, he’s going to need more help.  Additional production from RB Steve Slaton, for instance, would be nice.  A Heisman contender entering the season, the junior ran for more than 100 yards just twice in the final eight games.  To put a dent in one of the nation’s top defenses, West Virginia is going to need some assistance from Slaton and freshmen scatbacks, Noel Devine and Jock Sanders.  The Mountaineer defense has been one of the huge shockers of the 2007 season in the Big East, leading the league in total defense and scoring defense.  The unit has to find a way to get an upfield push on that hulking Sooner line, which means DE Johnny Dingle and LB Marc Magro must close out the best years of their college careers with another disruptive game.  Dingle has been a 12-game beast, spending a big portion of the year in opposing backfields.  Magro is a high-motor guy needed to keep Patrick and RB Chris Brown from busting into the secondary.                                    

Oklahoma will win if... White is the only Mountaineer that does serious damage.  Against opponents, such as Connecticut and Cincinnati, White’s capable of carrying West Virginia on his back, but that’s not going to happen versus this Oklahoma team.  If the Sooners are able to contain Slaton, Devine, and WR Darius Reynaud, White alone won’t be able to solve a defense that’s No. 1 or No. 2 in the Big 12 in every major statistical category, and landed eight players on the all-conference team.                            

West Virginia will win if... it starts fast, a la the Sugar Bowl two years ago.  After hearing for weeks about their season-ending collapse to Pittsburgh, the Mountaineers can ill-afford to get out of the blocks slowly, especially against this deep and determined Oklahoma team.  They’ve got to shock the Sooners in the first quarter with a bolt of lightning down the sidelines from one of the speedsters.  Although the West Virginia players will say all the right things leading up to the game, they’ll need an early explosion to shake the month-long malaise.                    

What will happen: The West Virginia defense has been fantastic all year, but this is the game that the curtain gets pulled back on Jeff Casteel’s kids.  The Oklahoma offense, purring since Bradford’s return from a concussion, has too many weapons for a collection of kids that are predominantly overachievers.  White will do something amazing, but the Sooners have already proven they can keep a diverse offense from erupting, twice holding Mizzou below its season scoring average.  Oklahoma will out class West Virginia, giving its fans something to beef about if two-loss LSU narrowly gets by Ohio State in the Superdome.     

Oklahoma -6.5 ... CFN Prediction: Oklahoma 38... West Virginia 27

2008 Fiesta Bowl History, Each Team's Best Bowl Moments, & More