Watching his coaching staff mingle for a few minutes Tuesday night at a function in Orlando, Fla., with Virginia Tech’s staff, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy heard loose plans among the coaches being made to visit with each other for a brain-picking session.
The meetings seemed like a wise idea for coaching staffs with geographic ties to Oklahoma and who won’t cross paths again on a field for the foreseeable future after Thursday’s meeting in the Camping World Bowl. Coaches from the nation’s top passing offense traded information with coaches from one of the country’s best defenses.
Of course, those arrangements are on hold for now.
All pleasantries will be put aside Thursday when both teams will be looking to finish with 10 wins. Oklahoma State (9-3), ranked 17th by The Associated Press and 19th on the College Football Playoff chart, is looking to hit that mark for a third consecutive season. Tech (9-3), No. 22 on both lists, is seeking to reach 10 victories for a second straight year under coach Justin Fuente.
Though the strengths of both teams vary, there’s mutual respect for what each is trying to accomplish. Fuente knows what his team is facing in Oklahoma State, which boasts the nation’s passing yardage leader in Mason Rudolph (4,553 yards), the Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver in James Washington (69 catches for 1,423 yards and 12 touchdowns) and a sneaky-good running back in Justice Hill (245 carries for 1,347 yards and 14 touchdowns).
“The thing that stands out about Oklahoma State, I think, is their skill players,” Fuente said. “You look at their wide receivers, running backs, big NFL quarterback, they push the tempo and score points in bunches. That’s not to say that they aren’t good in the other phases of the game. They are. They’re very sound and well-prepared, and they’ve done a fantastic job. That’s why they’re in the situation that they’re in.”
Tech has seen teams this season that can speed up the tempo on offense — West Virginia, Clemson, North Carolina — but the Hokies haven’t seen anything like Oklahoma State’s pace. Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster will have his hands full scheming against an offense that’s third in the nation in points per game (46.3), but Gundy recognizes the successful formula Foster has employed over the years.
“It’s interesting,” Gundy said. “The schemes look to be the same over the last 20 years, or maybe even further back. They’re physical up front. They have big guys that play well up front. It’s not easy to run the ball, but they’re long in the secondary. They’re athletic. Their safeties cover really well, in our opinion, for safeties. So I think it’ll be an interesting challenge. … This could very well be the best defense that we’ve competed against.”
At least five key starters won’t be on the field for Tech: wide receiver Cam Phillips (sports hernia surgery), left tackle Yosuah Nijman (will miss his fourth game in Tech’s last five with a leg injury), defensive end Vinny Mihota (will miss his second straight game because of a season-ending knee injury), running back Travon McMillian (decided in early December to skip the bowl and prepare to transfer) and safety Terrell Edmunds (will miss his third consecutive game after having season-ending shoulder surgery).
Despite the defensive absences, Tech still has most of the core of a group that has surrendered just 13.5 points (fifth-fewest per game in the nation) and 305.3 yards per game (11th in the country). Tech has held eight opponents under 200 passing yards this season.
“I’ve got all the trust in this defense,” said Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, a Butkus Award finalist this season. “We’ve been doing some good things this year as well, so I think it’ll be a big-time matchup. We’ve got a couple guys out, but we’ve got some younger guys that are going to step in. I feel like they’re ready for the challenge.”
Without Phillips and McMillian, quarterback Josh Jackson will have two fewer dependable weapons at his disposal. While Jackson’s passing numbers (60.3 percent completions, 2,743 yards, 19 touchdowns, eight interceptions) have been pretty good overall, he’s been less sharp in Tech’s last four games (56 percent completions, 711 yards, two touchdowns, four interceptions).
The matchup of Oklahoma State’s offense against Tech’s defense may be intriguing. But the ability of Jackson to lead a depleted Hokies offense featuring Steven Peoples, Deshawn McClease and Jalen Holston in the backfield, and Sean Savoy, Eric Kumah, C.J. Carroll, Phil Patterson and Lafayette High alum Hezekiah Grimsley at the receiver spots against Oklahoma State’s suspect defense will be critical.
Oklahoma State is giving up 400.3 yards per game (75th in the nation in total defense) and 30.1 points per game (86th). Tech's path to victory may be all about whether it has enough offensively to keep up with Oklahoma State’s weapons.
“I think we know we’ve got to put up some points,” Jackson said. “Mason Rudolph is one of the best quarterbacks in the country, obviously, and he’s got the best receiver … so definitely we’re going to have put up some points going against this team.”
Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642 or Twitter at @normwood