WVU head football coach Neal Brown came into Saturday’s season opener against Eastern Kentucky with something of a unique plan – and of course the pandemic was the driving reason behind it.
While the second-year Mountaineer head coach was quick to emphasize that he treated the contest as a regular opening game, it was also part of a build-up process toward the opening of Big 12 play on Sept. 26. That involved both gameplanning and conditioning.
“Just because of the calendar, we treated this like a first game, but tried to set it up with the 26th as the point where we are ready physically and football-wise,” Brown explained.
The lack of on-campus, in-person conditioning for much of the summer, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, contributed to the altered plan. Brown, like many coaches in the game, noted that it was difficult to get players into game-ready football shape in with the modified schedule.
“Just from a staff standpoint, we have tried to build toward that date,” he detailed. “This week will be kind of a mix between a normal bye week and camp style sessions. We plan to go four sessions this week, and go against each other a lot.”
Next week, attention will turn to Oklahoma State, WVU’s foe in the scheduled league opener. The Cowboys didn’t play this Saturday, but will play Tulsa on Sept. 19 in a contest that was pushed back seven days due to a lack of preseason practice for the Golden Hurricane. The Mountaineers have the open date.
West Virginia’s game against OSU in Stillwater is slated for 3:30 p.m. (Eastern) and will be televised by ABC/ESPN.
“I don’t think it’s an advantage either way, just because we played each other late last season,” Brown said of any plus or minus in playing or not playing this week. “Schematically, I don’t think either side will make a whole bunch of changes from what we did last year.”
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A second goal of the Eastern Kentucky game was to run a number of different sets and plays in order to evaluate their effectiveness and find out if the results from practice sessions matched up to those that came under game conditions. That work leaned more heavily on one side of the ball.
“We ran a lot of plays, I think it was 86, and we made 90 calls,” Brown detailed. “We called everything we planned to. We were pretty simple, but a lot of that was due to it being the first game and some due to our youth.
“On defense we didn’t have as many calls. “I think we had 49 countable snaps. We didn’t want to show a lot there, and we kept it simple.”
Game operations are always a concern in the first week of the season, even though mock contests and walkthroughs, extending to the point of riding the team buses to the stadium and mimicking every aspect of a normal game day, are executed to try to identify any bugs.
With WVU breaking in new faces at both coordinator positions, that was a point to watch in Saturday’s game, and Brown noted everything went well, especially on the defensive side, where co-coordinators Jordan Lesley and Jahmile Addae were working with three new faces (Dontae Wright, Jeff Casteel, Jeff Koonz) for the first time in a game.
“The coaches have been professionals about it the whole time,” Brown said of his staff. “They made the kids the No. 1 priority, as we asked. We want to be a players first program. There were things we have to do better, like tackle better, and we misfit some things, but their communication was good.”
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The plan to play as many people as possible included the quarterback position, where true freshman Garrett Greene saw two series and 20 snaps in the fourth quarter.
“I was glad we got to play him,” Brown analyzed. “He was up and down. (He had) only one really bad decision, and the time I got on him was when he danced on the sideline after a play. When you are up that score you don’t need to do that.
“But he has great energy and extreme competitiveness. His first play wasn’t very good and he got hit, but he learned from that. He got a lot of snaps for a guy playing his first time.”
Offensive lineman Mike Brown, who was down on the field for a couple of minutes with an apparent leg injury, walked off the field after the game and even went into the stands to hold his baby daughter. Neal Brown said “he should be fine” in terms of getting back into action.
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As a Sun Belt Conference alumnus, Brown was asked about the league’s big day on Saturday, which included three wins over Big 12 teams.
“Going back to 2016, the Sun Belt probably hasn’t gotten the attention or respect it deserves,” said the former Troy head coach. “I haven’t had a chance to watch [the games]. The week-in week-out grind is different, but those teams are really well coached and those won’t be the only games they win this year.”
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“It was a great way to start the season,” Brown summarized. “We ran the ball better, the offensive line, the running backs and the tight ends were all much better and the communication was good. We had several explosive plays, and on defense we were really good on third down (1-11). But our discipline and attention to detail must improve as we get into league play.”
WVU had at least seven plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or more, while Eastern Kentucky had four.