Kendall returns with West Virginia to face No. 5 Oklahoma

Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley congratulates quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) after beating Texas 34-27 in an NCAA college football game at the Cotton Bowl, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)

The numbers Oklahoma’s offense puts up on a weekly basis likely wouldn’t be believed if there wasn’t video evidence. And the Sooners’ numbers are video-game like.

They lead the FBS in yards per game (612.9), more than 59 yards ahead of second-place Central Florida. They are first in points per game, averaging 50.4 a contest. They also are first in yards per play (9.6), yards per rush (7.4), yards per pass attempt (12.6) and pass efficiency rating (215).

It amazes Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman. The undefeated and No. 5 Sooners (7-0, 4-0 Big 12) come to town for an 11 a.m. kickoff at Bill Snyder Family Stadium on Saturday. Klieman, whose background in the sport is that of a defensive specialist, said he believes that across college football, defenses have continued to improve, especially in the Big 12.

But ...

“What Oklahoma is doing is unbelievable: what they’re doing against everybody and the success they’re having, the efficiency with which they’re playing with and the amount of explosive plays,” said Klieman, who is in his first season as K-State’s head coach. “When you turn on the explosive-play tape, it just goes and goes and goes, because they have a tremendous scheme, guys who understand the scheme, and then the No. 1 thing, is execution. They’re executing it really, really well.”

And Klieman is right about the explosive plays. Per Oklahoma’s official game notes, the Sooners have scored 82 offensive touchdowns of 40-plus yards since 2015, the year head coach Lincoln Riley became the offense’s play-caller. That’s 22 more than the next Power 5 program, Alabama, which has 60.

Perhaps it’s fitting, if only because there’s a connection between those two programs: Jalen Hurts.

Beginning his career with the Crimson Tide, Hurts went a combined 26-2 as the starting quarterback in 2016 and 2017. But in that second season, he struggled in the national championship game against Georgia, prompting head coach Nick Saban to replace Hurts to begin the second half in favor of true freshman Tua Tagovailoa. All Tagovailoa did was lead a come-from-behind victory, including tossing the game-winning touchdown pass in overtime to give Alabama yet another national title.

Tagovailoa then remained the starter last season, setting numerous school passing records along the way. Though Hurts came in during the fourth quarter of the SEC championship game for an injured Tagovailoa to spur another rally against the Bulldogs, that arguably was the lone bright spot for him in 2018.

He joined OU as a graduate transfer in the offseason, and the rest is history — record-setting history, at that.

Put aside the aforementioned numbers of the Sooners’ offense as a whole, and focus solely on Hurts.

On his own, he averages 397 yards per game, better than 43% (56 of 129) of FBS teams entering this week. He has five passer efficiency ratings above 245 this fall, already a single-season record. (Former Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield had held the record, with three such games during his Heisman Trophy-winning campaign in 2017.) And what makes Hurts so difficult to defend is that teams have to account for both his arm and his legs: He has three games with at least two rushing and two passing touchdowns this season, the only signal-caller in the country who can make that claim.

Klieman said of Hurts’ many stellar attributes, the one that stands out the most is his patience.

“He makes the game look so easy. We all know the game is not easy,” Klieman said. “That’s the thing I marvel at. He’s a winner. The kid’s just a flat-out winner. He did it at the SEC level. He’s doing it at the Big 12 level. He’s going to do it at the next level on Sundays. (He’s) just an unbelievable talent that seems like, in my opinion, a really humble guy who just loves to play the game.”

The Wildcats (4-2, 1-2) will counter with their defense, which enters Saturday at the top of the league in points allowed per game, permitting just 18.7. The unit will have to be at its best Saturday in what will be its biggest challenge of the season.

Glancing at the staggering numbers the Sooners’ offense churns out game to game, Klieman conceded that opposing defenses have to “pick your poison.”

What aspect of Oklahoma’s offense do you try to take away?

The ground game is Klieman’s choice. But even selecting that specifically presents yet another dilemma.

“Which run game are you going to slow down?” Klieman said. “Are you going to slow down the quarterback run? Are you going to slow down the running backs, the jet action, all that stuff? I think our ability to show some different looks, show base, show some pressures, be able to tackle in space and try to eliminate some of the explosive run plays (is important).

“In the passing game, if you do a great job trying to stop the run, then they’re going to have time to throw the football. That’s the next scary part. For us, it has to be trying to slow down the run game first.”

Defensive end Wyatt Hubert, who made a pair of game-changing plays late in the fourth quarter to seal last week’s win against TCU, is well aware of the task at hand Saturday.

“Oklahoma’s offense is super complex, and is pretty superior in the Big 12 and in the country,” he said. “They have a lot of playmakers and weapons. It’s always tough to play a team with a quarterback who can hurt you with his arm and his feet.”

It’s a test defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton is eager to take.

Knowing Oklahoma averages 50-plus points per game, Hazelton joked that in his position, “I’d like to call it when it’s 40 (points). ‘Hey, if somebody hits 40, you know what? Sorry folks. Everyone, we’re going home.’” And he added that the Sooners simply are “a scary deal” for any opposing defense.

But he quickly shifted gears, noting Saturday will “be fun” for him and his players.

“There’s been some times you play some offenses that are freaky good like that,” he said. “Sometimes it goes your way, and it’s a great deal. It gives you great confidence and it shocks the world, and sometimes it doesn’t and you’re like, ‘OK, let’s move on and get better at what we do and move on to the next week. Let’s see if we can continue to get on a roll after that.’”

Even if Hurts is the engine that powers the Sooners’ offense, it’s not as if he’s the lone source of energy in the high-octane attack.

Running back Kennedy Brooks averages 8.5 yards per carry — a mark that would rank first in the FBS if he had enough attempts to qualify. Then there’s receivers CeeDee Lamb and Charleston Rambo. The 1-2 punch in the passing game features a player tied for the national lead in touchdown receptions (Lamb has 10) this season with a teammate No. 2 in the country in yards per reception (22.7 per grab for Rambo).

As well as K-State’s defense has played to attain that No. 1 scoring defense spot, Hazelton admitted he’ll have to take some chances Saturday. In a sense, the Wildcats’ defense will play Russian roulette on every snap.

“We’re going to have to gamble a little bit, and if you give up things and they guess right and you make a bad call, it could be a bad deal for all of us,” Hazelton said. “Hopefully we guess right more than we guess wrong.”

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