Neal Brown: Mountaineers Slowly Getting Healthier
MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–Inexperience and injuries have been an all too common refrain for the Mountaineer football team this season.
Only time can help the maturation process, but at least Neal Brown’s WVU squad is starting to get some of its walking wounded back.
For this coming Saturday’s game at Kansas State, West Virginia figures to have a few more players available.
Linebacker Josh Chandler “will play this week, provided there aren’t any setbacks,” noted Brown. Also wide receiver Sean Ryan will practice this week for the first time in over a month and potentially could see action against the Wildcats. Placekicker Evan Staley, who has missed the past two games with a strained groin, may also be available on Saturday. Wide receiver T.J. Simmons and offensive guard Chase Behrndt are each questionable, while cornerback Dreshun Miller remains out.
“I’m looking forward to playing better football this week,” said Brown. “I’m looking forward to another opportunity to get out there and prove ourselves against a quality opponent.”
West Virginia, which is 3-6 on the season and 1-5 in Big 12 play, travels to Manhattan, Kansas, this Saturday to take on a veteran Wildcat squad at 3:30 p.m. (Eastern time) in a game that will be televised by ESPN.
K-State (6-3/3-3) had won three straight games, including a stunning 48-41 upset of then No. 5 ranked Oklahoma, before falling short at Texas this past weekend, 27-24.
Though Kansas State, like WVU, features a first-year coaching staff, the Wildcats have the advantage of starting eight seniors, including all five first-team offensive linemen, two juniors and one sophomore on offense, and another six seniors, three juniors, one sophomore and one redshirt freshmen on defense.
By comparison, West Virginia’s starting offense this past week featured two seniors, two juniors, one sophomore and six redshirt or true freshmen, and its defense had five seniors, three juniors, one sophomore and two true freshmen.
“They are a veteran team,” said Brown of K-State. “They are extremely disciplined. That’s been the culture in that program for a long time.
“They play extremely hard and don’t beat themselves.”
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Certainly West Virginia will face another difficult challenge at K-State this Saturday.
The Wildcats are currently a 15-point favorite, but being an underdog is nothing new for WVU this season, as the Mountaineers have been favored in only two of their first 10 games.
Even last week at Mountaineer Field against Texas Tech, West Virginia was a two-point underdog, though the final score far exceeded that point spread, as the Red Raiders ran away with a 38-17 victory.
“That wasn’t the outcome we wanted or expected,” Brown said of the loss to TTU. “Usually when you watch video after a game, it’s not as bad or as good as you thought it was, and that was kind of the case on Saturday. But our margin for error is really small, and when you aren’t emotionally or mentally locked in for every single play, if we don’t do exactly what we’re coached to do, if you don’t make the routine plays that are there, you get exposed. That’s what happened on Saturday.”
Despite the disappointment against Tech and a record that now has fallen to 3-6, Brown says he does see positive progress.
“I want to see improvement and I want to see us get better,” he stated. “At this point, we have made some serious improvement. On Sundays – sometime for my own sanity – I pick a game out from earlier in the year and go back and watch it, or watch tape from preseason camp, and when I watch that, I do see improvements. I believe we have made solid progress and have gotten better, but on Saturday, I don’t believe on special teams and defense, I don’t think that showed. It wasn’t good enough, and we have to get better.”
West Virginia’s defense had played well the game before, albeit in a 17-14 loss at No. 12 Baylor. Brown noted that same level of effort and intensity wasn’t evident against Texas Tech, though.
“Defensively, I was disappointed in how we played,” he admitted. “We didn’t handle the success versus Baylor very well at all, especially on the defensive line. We played poorly at the start and gave up touchdowns on the first five drives. I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a game like that as a head coach. We obviously weren’t ready to go. We did show fight and really only gave up a field goal from the mid-second quarter on, but by that point, the damage had already been done.”
West Virginia’s offense amassed a season-high 549 total yards against the Red Raiders, including 498 yards passing, which was the fifth-best single-game performance in WVU history. But mistakes in the red zone, where the Mountaineers scored just one touchdown and one field goal in five trips, kept West Virginia on the short end of a 38-17 final.
“Offensively we really played well in the open field. If you look at it all way to the plus-20 (yard line), we played well, the best we’ve played since the middle of the game against Texas,” stated Brown. “But we struggled in the red zone, and that was the difference in the game. They were successful in the red zone (4 TDs and 1 FG in 6 trips), and we were not. But I thought it was the best performance by our quarterbacks and our receivers. I’m excited about our future with those receivers. They are getting better. We did have some drops, but that group played well on Saturday. Our pass protection also was solid. We’ve struggled to run the ball, but our pass protection has been pretty solid.
“For us to have sustained success offensively, though, we can’t have missed assignments, can’t have drops, can’t do things to end drives on ourselves, and we continue to do that.”
Brown also wasn’t particularly enthused about WVU’s special teams play against Tech.
“Our special teams were very average,” he noted. “I didn’t think they were poor but very average. We didn’t do anything in that phase of the game to change the outcome, and where we’re at right now, we’ve got to make plays and change the game on special teams. We didn’t do anything that changed the game.”
West Virginia looks to snap a five-game losing streak this week. The last time it lost six in a row was in 1986 (4-7 overall), and these Mountaineers want to avoid joining that win-deprived moment in WVU history.