The Mountaineers opened the Neal Brown era with a win over an FCS opponent. The win improves the Mountaineers’ record against FCS opponents to 20-0 all time. Unfortunately, the win put several areas of weakness into perspective. That said, West Virginia adjusted at halftime, and the Mountaineers survived James Madison to beat the Dukes 20-13.
Mountaineers Survive James Madison
Before jumping into the weaknesses, fans should understand several positive aspects the Mountaineers displayed on Saturday. As an initial matter, we noted a few common themes in our article covering the five worst losses of the Dana Holgorsen era. In particular, Holgorsen teams suffered on special teams. His teams generally lacked discipline. And his teams often lost the halftime coaching battle, giving up leads and performing worse in the second half of games.
Saturday, the Mountaineers showed positive gains in all three areas. In fact, special teams was a particular strength. Josh Growden did everything he could to play keep away from the Dukes’ D’Angelo Amos, who has a penchant for long punt returns. Amos tallied three returns totaling two yards and coughed up a fumble. Growden kept five other punts away from Amos entirely. Evan Staley made two of three field goal attempts, missing only from 49 yards out. Staley also kept all of his kickoffs from going out-of-bounds (fans will understand the pain of multiple illegal procedure penalties on kickoffs). And Darius Stills gave the Mountaineers their first blocked field goal since 2013. That is a complete win in this phase of the game.
And while West Virginia fans grew accustomed to waning performances after half-time during the Holgorsen era, the Mountaineers made several positive adjustments Saturday that won the game. The defense settled down and played solid fundamental football. As a result, the defense put solid pressure into the backfield in the second half. This led to the Mountaineers surrendering only 34 rushing yards in the second half, compared to 138 in the first. The Mountaineers also tallied five sacks in the second half, compared to zero in the first. And, offensively, the Mountaineers calmed down, got playmakers into space, and controlled the game.
Finally, the Mountaineers nearly halved their 2018 season average on penalties. During the Holgorsen era, the Mountaineers often gave up 80 or more yards in penalties. In 2018, they averaged over 60. While the sample size for 2019 is only one game, they surrendered only 35 yards in penalties.
While the Mountaineers made several positive adjustments at half-time, there were a few things they could not overcome. The most glaring deficit was the Mountaineers’ run game, or lack thereof. In the first half, they tallied only eighteen rushing yards (less than two yards per carry). In the second, they only amassed sixteen rushing yards (still less than two yards per carry). The offensive line simply could not open wide enough lanes for the Mountaineers’ talented backfield to work with. And even though the line’s pass protection improved in the second half, its run blocking did not.
The Mountaineers’ passing game certainly performed better in the second half, increasing its average yards per play from under four yards per attempt to just under nine. But even with this improvement, the Mountaineers still faced mental mistakes that stalled plenty of drives. Sam James flashed his speed several times Saturday, but he also dropped a couple of well-thrown balls that would have led to first downs (or more). Tevin Bush also had a couple of big plays, including perhaps the biggest play of the game in the Mountaineers’ opening drive in the second half. But he also dropped a pass over the middle that would have added at least fifteen yards to the stat sheet. And Bryce Wheaton dropped a pass in the second half that would have added another ten. Perhaps the worst part about all of these drops is that Austin Kendall threw very catchable passes in well-drawn plays that could have extended the lead significantly.
In his post-game interview, Kendall admitted that the “defense really took care of us.” Importantly, he added, “[t]he whole offense has to do better,” and we need to improve “the little things.” If we examine those little things, Kendall missed Wheaton by a step and a half on his first deep ball of the game. If Kendall throws that ball just a half of a second later, he hits James in stride for an easy score. A little later in the first half, Kendall threw a ball just inches over Wheaton’s outstretched fingertips on a fade route in the end zone. Those two plays alone account for an 11-point difference on the scoreboard. And both of those plays come down to timing and touch.
These things get ironed out over the course of a season. But if the Mountaineers’ offense can work on these little things, the Mountaineers’ potential increases dramatically. This is particularly true if the defense continues to settle in, and the special teams units continue to perform well.
Brown also said, “[w]e’ve gotta figure out a way to run the football.” In his post-game press conference, Brown added that he didn’t attempt to disguise his runs. But he said he plans to start opening up that part of his playbook against Missouri. West Virginia could surely use that. If it helps the offensive line gain confidence in its run-blocking, that certainly cannot hurt either.
In the end, the Mountaineers survived James Madison. For a team that played inefficient football offensively for two-thirds of the game, a win is certainly a positive. When that team has replaced its starting quarterback, over 90 percent of its receiving production, and several key members of its offensive line–in addition to replacing a coaching staff–that win means that much more. Mountaineer fans will take it. And the team will look to improve “the little things” going forward.