By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Long before this season started, the newspaper in Oklahoma City looked into its crystal ball and proclaimed this Saturday’s 7 p.m. meeting between Oklahoma and West Virginia as the marquee matchup of the Big 12 season.
Hope that crystal ball has a warranty.
Oklahoma has kept its end up, dropping only a narrow decision to Kansas State in conference and a non-conference meeting with Notre Dame. There is no disgrace in losing to the nation’s No. 1 and No. 3 teams.
On the other hand, West Virginia finds itself mired in a dismal four-game losing streak following Saturday’s loss at Oklahoma State, 55-34, slipping off the national radar after having climbed as high as No. 4 in the nation, taking most of the luster off this matchup and the head-to-head quarterback showdown that everyone was awaiting between WVU’s Geno Smith and the Sooners’ Landry Jones.
The two have combined for 3,792 yards and 49 touchdowns this year, the statistics weighted heavily in Geno Smith’s favor.
The last two games played between these two teams have been crucial battles for West Virginia, each a victory, and this one is not much different, for once again the direction the Mountaineers will take is tied to this contest.
To begin with, there remains only three regular-season games — Oklahoma, at Iowa State and Kansas — and while one would think the Mountaineers should be highly favored over Iowa State and Kansas, there are no certainties of anything the way this team has played.
WVU needs one more victory to become bowl eligible, and we’re not talking about BCS bowls.
Jerry Palm, an expert in such matters, has just come out with his bowl projections, and he has WVU doing not badly at all for itself by going to the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29 in San Antonio, but he may be thinking the Mountaineers are going to win two more games to match themselves against USC.
In all, he has eight Big 12 teams in bowls, only Baylor and Kansas left out.
Here are his projections:
• Kansas State and Oregon meeting in the national championship game.
• Oklahoma and LSU meeting in the Fiesta Bowl.
• Texas and Texas A&M re-establishing their rivalry in the Cotton Bowl.
• WVU and USC in the Alamo Bowl.
• TCU and Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium.
• Oklahoma State and Northwestern in Buffalo Wild Things Bowl.
• Iowa State and Minnesota in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
• Texas Tech and Oregon State in the Holiday Bowl.
However, if WVU could beat Oklahoma and then win out, ending the regular season at 8-4 with a win over the Sooners, they could re-establish themselves as a national player and have something to carry over into next season.
It isn’t crazy to think the Mountaineers might, as bad as they have played, for the last two meetings with the Sooners have been epic.
In 1982, Don Nehlen was just beginning to establish West Virginia as a national player, having upset Florida in the 1981 Peach Bowl. But a trip to Oklahoma loomed to open the next season, and the Sooners were confident and favored.
The Mountaineers won, 41-27, avenging an embarrassing 52-10 beating given Frank Cignetti’s team in 1978, the team that set the school record for most points allowed in a season at 364 until this year’s team broke it in that Oklahoma State loss.
“In that 1978 game,” Nehlen once recalled, “Oklahoma’s starters didn’t even wear their shoulder pads the second half. They were on the sidelines and spent the whole half signing autographs and shaking hands with fans.”
Nehlen had other ideas.
“I didn’t plan on taking my team out there and killing those horses (pulling the Sooner Schooner after each TD); we planned on giving them plenty of rest,” he added.
They did as Jeff Hostetler took the Sooners apart on a 100-degree day.
The more recent game, of course, was one of the most important in WVU history, the game where Bill Stewart took over for Rich Rodriguez, who had left for Michigan after being upset by Pitt in the season’s final game to cost him a shot at the national championship.
WVU’s program could have spiraled out of control downward following that loss, beginning with being thrashed by the Sooners in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, but the team rallied around Stewart and pulled off a stunning upset, 48-28.
Now there is another WVU coach trying to establish himself at Oklahoma’s expense, just as Nehlen and Stewart did, in a game that could turn the season back around.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.