Reevaluating the Climb

reevaluating the climb
MORGANTOWN, WV - OCTOBER 05: Head coach Neal Brown of the West Virginia Mountaineers talks to Austin Kendall #12 during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Mountaineer Field on October 5, 2019 in Morgantown, West Virginia. Texas defeated West Virginia 42-31. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

After nine games, the Mountaineers stand at 3-6. The road ahead does not offer the Mountaineers reprieve, either. They face two top 25 opponents the next two weeks, and then travel to face TCU to close the season.  As we wrote in July, the Mountaineers began managing expectations early. Head Coach Neal Brown pushed the motto “Trust the Climb” early. Athletic Director Shane Lyons urged patience from the fans. So it is hard to say that the result through three-quarters of the season are surprising. Nonetheless, they are disappointing. And that has many fans reevaluating the climb. Some are questioning it outright. And some members of the “media” are outright decrying it and lambasting other journalists who dare approach the topic.

Reevaluating The Climb

Recapping Texas Tech

The Mountaineers most recently faced a lopsided defeat at home against Texas Tech. The Red Raiders dominated the first half of play building a 35-10 lead. West Virginia executed poorly in all aspects of the game. And while the defense settled in the second half—surrendering only three points and 114 yards—the offense showed little life in the red zone. Unfortunately, the Mountaineers’ run game continued to sputter, as they rushed for only 51 yards on eighteen carries.

A quarterback change in the third quarter breathed some life into the Mountaineers. Jarret Doege finished with 119 yards and a touchdown while completing 65% of his passes while leading three offensive series. For many, this created a quarterback “controversy” of sorts. Austin Kendall finished with two interceptions and no touchdowns, despite racking up 355 yards through the air. And Kendall’s performance was marred by three under-thrown balls that would have been easy touchdowns had Kendall led the receivers a bit more. But he didn’t, and the Mountaineers left at least 21 points on the board.

Moving On To Manhattan

As a result, fans have been clamoring for Doege to start this weekend. In his post-game and early-week press conferences, Brown refused to throw Kendall under the bus. He admits that the team’s issues are plentiful, but concluded, “I wish quarterback was our problem because that’s an easy fix.” Indeed, two issues that have plagued Kendall all season are pass protection breakdowns and dropped balls. Doege faced the same issue in his first drive, where standout, but youthful, wideout Sam James dropped two straight passes. On one of those plays, Doege had to spin out of pressure to avoid and sack in order to have a chance at a play.

West Virginia’s offense has also been thwarted by its inability to run the ball effectively. As we reported after Big XII media days, Brown’s philosophy promotes a balanced offense. He admits that the most successful offenses have been able to run the ball when they wanted to. The Mountaineers, simply, haven’t been able to do so. As a result, opposing units can lighten the box and protect better against the pass. And they can dial up pressure pretty freely, too. Unfortunately, the Mountaineers’ next opponent, Kansas State, has done that pretty effectively. The Wildcats total sixteen sacks on the season, with Wyatt Hubert leading the charge with five.

Perhaps fortunately for the Mountaineers, the Wildcats have not fared as well against the run, surrendering nearly five-and-a-half yards per carry. Maybe West Virginia can use this matchup to establish its run game early. As for the quarterback “controversy,” Brown told the media earlier this week that he has “a plan.” He continued, “[w]e’ll start it today and go. I do have a plan, and you’ll see it on Saturday.”

Reevaluating The Climb

Heading into the season, fans knew that the offensive line would be a weakness, particularly with depth. But nobody could have predicted exactly how tough the adjustments would be. According to Keenan Cummings at WVSports, each starting lineman played all 81 offensive snaps against the Red Raiders. Of those five, only one—Colton McKivitz—had significant playing time last season. And two of the others—James Gmiter and Briason Mays—are just redshirt freshmen.

And while we wrote that the sky was not falling in Morgantown when several players transferred during the offseason, injuries compounded the depth issues faced by the Mountaineers. A secondary that was set to welcome Dreshun Miller and Osita Smith and return All-Conference safety Kenny Robinson along with Derrek Pitts instead flaunts a narrow two-deep littered with first-time starters and true freshman rotating onto the field.

Injuries also plague the defensive line and linebacker corps. The Mountaineers lost Taijh Alston for the season early. West Virginia also lost VanDarius Cowan for the season. And Quondarius Qualls and Josh Chandler have also missed several games.

So a team installing a new defensive set, adjusting to a new offensive staff, and losing over three-quarters of its offensive production now faces substantial injuries at all positions. While cliché, the phrase “a snowball rolling downhill” springs to mind. The offseason attrition, injuries, and in-season attrition have compounded the Mountaineers’ anticipated struggles.

Still, the sky is not falling in Morgantown. And the climb remains very real, no matter how adamantly some writers might want to question it. See, the climb was never going to happen over one season’s time. Brown speaks often about adversity and its role in building character of his athletes. The adversity of this season is just the first building block on which a solid program can be built. So perhaps we have misnamed this article. Instead of reevaluating the climb, perhaps we are simply reaffirming it, as are the players who, at the end of the day, are the ones we need most to buy in.

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