MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia's defense has turned to a group of freshmen to shore up a depleted unit during the most difficult part of the schedule.
West Virginia used safety Tykee Smith and cornerbacks Nicktroy Fortune and Tae Mayo in a 38-14 loss to Iowa State on Saturday. The youngsters will be counted on again when the Mountaineers (3-3, 1-2 Big 12) try to break a two-game losing streak Saturday at No. 5 Oklahoma (6-0, 3-0).
"It ain't going to get any easier, so we've just got to keep trying to find guys that will do what we ask them to do," defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said.
Smith will get his third straight start against the Sooners. He grabbed a wild deflection and returned the first-quarter interception 19 yards for a touchdown against the Cyclones.
"That's one of the best plays I've ever seen, to be able to find the ball like that," linebacker Josh Chandler said.
Smith is tied for fifth in team tackles and entered the starting lineup after JoVanni Stewart decided not to play again this season for personal reasons.
Fortune made his first start in place of team interception leader Keith Washington, who had sustained a leg injury the week before against Texas. Mayo played the second half against Iowa State after Hakeem Bailey was ejected for targeting. Mayo will be called upon again Saturday because Bailey will have to sit out the first half against Oklahoma, while Washington's status is questionable.
Adding to the mix are freshman Kerry Martin, a converted quarterback, and redshirt freshman Kwantel Raines. Both have seen significant playing time at safety in recent weeks, and freshman backup nose guard Jordan Jefferson has added stability along the line.
"I'm extremely proud of them," Chandler said. "Every day since the day they stepped on campus, they've been balling. They've been doing what they've had to do."
It's been a trying season for Brown, who's also has had to dip into what little experience and depth he has on offense.
Backup quarterback Jack Allison could get his first start of the season in place of Oklahoma graduate transfer Austin Kendall, who is questionable after leaving Saturday's game with a chest injury. Allison, a junior, went 18 of 24 for 140 yards with one touchdown pass and an interception against Iowa State.
With sophomore wide receiver Sean Ryan out several games with a chest injury, freshman Sam James, the team's leading receiver, had five catches Saturday despite being banged up. Freshmen Winston Wright and Ali Jennings also have been leaned on to help generate some offense. Brown revealed Tuesday that slot receiver Tevin Bush, a junior, will enter the transfer portal.
West Virginia set seasons lows of 53 offensive plays and 190 total yards against Iowa State and were outscored 24-0 in the second half. The Mountaineers' running game has been held under 100 yards in four of six games this season.
Trying to accomplish anything against Oklahoma could be impossible. The Sooners average 50 points and 622 yards per game and have improved greatly on defense. West Virginia is a four-touchdown underdog.
"We're experiencing some growing pains. I think that's obvious," Brown said. "I think our kids are playing with great effort. Our execution and our playmaking is not what it needs to be."