After their first conference game, the Mountaineers enjoyed a 3-1 record in Neal Brown’s first season as West Virginia’s head coach. But flash forward three weeks, we see the Mountaineers searching for their identity while standing at 3-4 and facing an uphill battle for bowl eligibility. This Thursday, West Virginia looks to bounce back against Baylor.
Mountaineers Pushing Through Adversity
In many ways, though, Thursday will not be a story about whether West Virginia can upset the Bears and inch one win closer to that magic number of six. Instead, the game will be about whether the young, depleted Mountaineers take another step toward finding their identity.
West Virginia will travel to Waco without the services of Josh Sills, Josh Chandler, VanDarius Cowan, Taijh Alston, or Sean Ryan. And Quondarius Qualls is also doubtful. So a West Virginia team that lost several players to the transfer portal last Spring lacks depth across the board.
While several true and redshirt freshman continue to fill in important spots in the depth chart, Brown seeks to shift the focus. “I’ve got to stop using the ‘f-word.’” Brown does not want to focus on the lack of depth or the young roster an an excuse. As he reminded the media, “we’ve played seven games now.”
Brown clearly does not want to focus on those who are not with the team. He does not want to focus on who is missing due to injury. And he definitely does not want to focus on the relative inexperience of his roster. Instead, Brown wants to focus on helping the Mountaineers find their groove.
The Bears Are Back
To find their identity, the Mountaineers will have to respond to a stiff challenge in Waco. Baylor has been downright impressive in Matt Rhule’s third year as head coach. It was no accident that NFL teams came knocking on Rhule’s door after last season. And his squad is certainly proving why this season.
The Bears have run a balanced spread attack all season, actually favoring the run ever so slightly. As a result, they rank twelfth in the nation in scoring offense putting up an average of 39 points per game behind junior signal-caller Charlie Brewer and the backfield duo of John Lovett and JaMycal Hasty. Brewer has thrown for over 100 yards to seven different targets. And a pair of those receivers—Denzel Mims and Tyquan Thornton—has collected over 500 receiving yards each. Brewer has been efficient, too, completing over 65% of his passes for nearly ten yards per attempt. He adds twelve touchdowns to just three interceptions.
And Baylor’s defense has been pretty good, too. That unit ranks 19th in the nation in scoring defense. Senior linebacker Clay Johnston leads the team in tackles with 58, while James Lynch leads the team in sacks (eight-and-a-half) and tackles for loss (11.5). And while opposing offense fare slightly better in the running game than in the passing game, the Bears are still surrendering under four yards per carry on the season.
Mountaineers Searching For Their Identity
If Brown has his way, the Mountaineers will continue searching for their identity on Thursday night in prime time in Waco. No doubt the atmosphere and opponent present challenges to a thin roster, but Brown has never been one to shy away from adversity. And no doubt he is coaching his players to ignore the excuses the outside world might make for them or that they might make for themselves. This team will not be defined by the number of “freshmen,” but by how they responded to doubts about their ability to climb. And if ever there were a time to trust that climb, as has been Brown’s mantra all season, that time is now.
The Mountaineers’ match-up with Baylor will be televised Thursday night at 8:00 on ESPN.