5 Observations: WVU Finds A Way
There were plenty of things to note from West Virginia’s season opener against James Madison.
Here are my top five observations:
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Mother Nature smiled down on Morgantown for Neal Brown’s first game as WVU’s head coach. It was a beautiful August day, bringing a sellout crowd. The 61,891 in attendance were the most for a West Virginia home opener since it started the season before a throng of 68,409 who wedged into Mountaineer Field in 1998 to watch WVU face (and lose) to No. 1 Ohio State in 1998.
Brown sent these Mountaineer fans away happy with a 20-13 victory. He became the eighth straight new WVU head coach to win his first home game. The last time West Virginia lost its first home game with a new head coach was 1960, when Gene Corum’s initial squad was squashed by Maryland, 31-8, at old Mountaineer Field.
Brown didn’t join Corum, and he pushed a lot of button to try to assure the Mountaineers would come out on top.
Not every decision paid off, though, including a third-and-10 pass with 1:04 left in the game. WVU was clinging to a 20-13 lead and wanted desperately not to give the ball back to James Madison.
But the Dukes had no timeouts remaining, and when West Virginia redshirt freshman receiver Sam James dropped an Austin Kendall pass, the Dukes basically go an extra 40 seconds to work with.
“I was trying not to put the defense back out there,” said Brown. “The thought process was get the first down and you could take a knee. That’s just the way we’re going to roll.”
This gamble may not have worked this time, but it didn’t prove to be a killer.
Not every coaching decision is going to come up roses, but I think most can appreciate pushing the envelope rather than sitting back and being conservative.
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West Virginia run game struggled mightily all day in trying to find a crease against a James Madison defense loaded up to slow down WVU’s ground attack.
The Mountaineers averaged a measly 1.4 on their 24 attempts, and had no run longer than five yards. Their 34 rushing yard for the game were the fourth fewest they have had in the last 15 years. Only the efforts against Utah in 2017 (29 yards), Alabama in 2014 (28 yards), Maryland in 2012 (25 yards) and Cincinnati in 2011 (32 yards) were worse.
“The offense wasn’t pretty, and (we) struggled to run the ball,” admitted Brown. “It wasn’t really a surprise, because we’ve also struggled to run it in practices as well.”
Brown noted that there are some things his coaches can do schematically to help the run game, but the biggest aspect to improve that area is simply for his line to block better.
It wasn’t good on Saturday, and there are going to be a lot of struggles this season if the blocking doesn’t improve dramatically.
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While the run blocking struggled, West Virginia pass protection was pretty good. Kendall was sacked just once in 43 dropbacks, and he only was strongly pressured one other time.
“I thought our protection was pretty good,” said WVU’s offensive line coach Matt Moore. “I thought for the most part (Kendall) had pretty good time in the pocket, though he did get hit pretty hard twice. Overall I thought we protected well up front.”
That protection afforded Kendell the opportunity to throw for 260 yards, as he completed 27-of-42 passes. The junior quarterback, who transferred from Oklahoma to West Virginia in January, wasn’t perfect with his accuracy, but for the most part he performed well. He made a number of nice plays but most importantly he avoided the bad ones. He didn’t throw an interception, and in all, WVU won the turnover battle 3-0. Without a victory in that department, the Mountaineers likely don’t win the game.
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West Virginia’s defense was stingy when it came to giving up points, though James Madison did manage plenty of yards.
The Dukes posted 172 rushing yards, though they only had 35 in the second half. JMU quarterback Ben DiNucci completed 13-of-20 passes for 156 yards, but West Virginia’s defense stepped up with four sacks and came away with a key fourth quarter interception.
That Keith Washington pick led to a 22-yard touchdown pass from Kendall to Tevin Bush a few plays later to give WVU a 20-10 lead. That would provide the Mountaineers with enough of a cushion to hang on for a win and extend their record to 17-0 against FCS foes.
West Virginia’s defense will be challenged by opposing offenses who are much more explosive than the one it faced Saturday. But still you have to like the fact the Mountaineer unit was opportunistic and came up with multiple key plays at key moments.
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Maybe the best part of the performance Saturday for WVU came from its special teams.
Evan Staley did miss a first quarter field goal, but that was from 49 yards. He hit two other three-pointers. New punter Josh Growden, who arrived via a grad transfer from LSU just a few weeks ago, was solid (40.4 yard average on eight punts), and the Mountaineer coverage units were outstanding, allowing an average of just 1.3 yards on JMU punt returns and 23.0 yards on kickoff returns.
Most importantly, West Virginia didn’t make any of the special teams gaffes that are so frequent in openers. James Madison muffed an early punt, but the Mountaineers didn’t have a single special teams miscue.
Considering WVU is obviously going to be challenged in other areas this season, if it wants to have any success, it certainly has to remain rock solid in all special teams facets.