Neal Brown Era Starts With a Win
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The Neal Brown era had a successful, if not artful, start, but don’t say he didn’t warn you.
After surviving a 60-minute melodrama of a 20-13 win over James Madison, one filled with frustration before 61,891 fans — the largest home crowd since Oklahoma came to town in 2014 — Brown let out a long sigh and told the world how much he appreciated the people who hung in there.
“They hung in there when it was ugly,” he said. “I tried to give them a warning. But they hung in there and I appreciate that.”
There were moments when they had trouble hanging in there, even going so far as booing Brown’s call of an inside run on third-and-12 with 11:01 left in the game, a run that netted only two yards.
Seldom will you hear a debuting coach booed, but this was a day when the WVU running game was non-existent, gaining just 34 yards on 24 carries, the most anemic performance since Utah held the Mountaineers to 29 rushing yards in the 2017 Heart of Dallas bowl game.
But the booing ceased rapidly as WVU took the lead moments later when Evan Staley’s second field goal was good from 43 yards to make it 13-10.
A touchdown pass of 22 yards from Austin Kendall, who had an effective debut at quarterback, hitting 27 of 42 passes for 260 yards and two touchdowns, to Tevin Bush gave the Mountaineers some breathing room.
In the end, it was a second-half rally, inspired by a 41-yard pass-and-run by Bush, that made the difference.
WVU was calm in the locker room at halftime, something it’s sometimes hard for a debuting coach to promote, and came out all business in the second half.
“I thought we took control of the game really from the first drive offensively in the second half,” Brown said. “It came down to special teams and turnovers. You can say what you want. The offense wasn’t pretty and we struggled to run the ball.
“We’ve struggled to run it in scrimmages as well. But, at the end of the day, we didn’t turn it over. On special teams we blocked a field goal, which was huge. It completely changed the type of game we were in at the time.”
That block was by Darius Stills, who along with his brother Dante, each had big games. Darius had six tackles and a sack and Dante had three tackles.
“We covered kicks well and we recovered a punt, a fumbled punt return,” Brown went on to note.
Maybe the most noticeable aspect was the aggressiveness of the new Mountaineer defense headed by Vic Koenning.
“We allowed them to run the ball on us in the first half. But if you look at it — six tackles or so for loss, four sacks, three takeaways. We talk about how we want to create negative plays and we were able to do it in this game,” Brown noted.
One of the takeaways was a key interception by cornerback Keith Washington, who has become a big-time ballhawk on the defense.
“I just covered my guy down the field and saw the D-line getting pressure as Ben DiNucci was rolling out,” Washington said. “I saw a receiver coming from the opposite side of the field, and I made a play.”
Still, JMU is a FCS opponent and WVU has never lost to a FCS school, improving to 17-0.
So, you wonder if the Gatorade shower that Brown was given at game’s end was as much a celebration of victory or simply done out of pure relief.
Either way a win is a win.
“Winning’s hard,” said West Virginia’s first-year head coach. “I knew it would be, but I’ll take it. I’m glad to be 1-0.”