West Virginia football coach Neal Brown has repeated often since the end of last season that his offense’s ability to run the football must be better in 2020 than it was in 2019 if his team is to improve overall.
Now with the Mountaineers’ Sept. 12 season opener against Eastern Kentucky looming just around the corner, the vital question was again posed to WVU’s second-year head coach – “Do you think your run game is improved?”
His answer was brief, but didn’t necessarily feature a lot of clarity – “We’d better be.”
After averaging just 73.2 rushing yards per game last year, West Virginia’s ground attack is one of many unknowns for WVU’s 2020 season.
“You really don’t know what you have until you go out and play somebody else. You’ve heard me say that before,” Brown noted during Tuesday’s Zoom press conference. “You have a scrimmage, and let’s say the offense has a good scrimmage. Is that good offense or bad defense? You always wonder as a head coach. You go into a scrimmage and the defense has a good scrimmage. Is that good defense or suspect offense? So, you don’t really know until you play somebody else.
“I know we have a lot of youth and inexperience,” continued WVU’s head coach, whose club was 5-7 last season. “How they react is going to be different. There aren’t going to be fans in the stands, so there probably won’t be as much pressure as in a normal situation.
“Special teams is always kind of a wild card in these first games. You try to practice special teams as fast as you possibly can, but you don’t necessarily tackle on a kickoff or kickoff return situation or a punt return situation. So when you get into live football, being able to tackle on special teams is always a concern for me.”
Every football game presents such unknowns, particularly the openers.
Eastern Kentucky already has one game under its belt, albeit in a 59-0 beatdown at Marshall this past Saturday. The Colonels are a FCS program playing out of the Ohio Valley Conference. After a 7-5 season in 2019, EKU made a coaching change and hired Walt Wells, who had spent the previous two seasons on the staff at the University of Kentucky.
“I know it’s a cliché, but I do think that teams make the biggest improvement between week one and week two,” said Brown, whose mother is an Eastern Kentucky grad. “They have some really good coaches on that staff, and I expect that to happen.”
WVU vs. EKU will kickoff at noon on Saturday in a game that will be televised on FS1. Because of coronavirus concerns, the general public will not be allowed into Mountaineer Field for the opener, so TV will be the only viewing option for most. WVU is 17-0 all time against FCS opponents.
Though West Virginia still has to get through the rest of the week unscathed in terms of injuries and coronavirus tests, at the moment the only Mountaineer who definitely will not be available Saturday is junior defensive end Taijh Alston, who is likely to miss the first half of the season as he continues to recover from a knee injury he suffered last year.
“We have contingency plans on how to handle things, and we’ve had that since the middle of the summer,” said Brown in regards to how to adjust if various players are out of the lineup. “If catastrophe hits, what does it look like? We have a plan in place.
“I’m not going to get into who’s in and who’s out until later in the week, just because of the (coronavirus) environment we’re in,” he added. “We tested Sunday (for COVID-19). Those results are coming in. I haven’t gotten the full list of those results yet. We’re going to test again Wednesday and then again on Friday, so we’ll wait until later in the week to speak on that.”
Provided the Mountaineers make it to Saturday without any major virus outbreaks – and Eastern Kentucky does the same – West Virginia will actually play a football game in the fall of 2020. For many, including WVU’s head coach, whether this would happen was a huge unknown.
“It’s finally time for football,” smiled Brown. “Reflecting back over the last several months, at certain times I honestly didn’t know if we’d get to this point. I didn’t know if we’d be able to play, but here we are just a few days away from kickoff.”