MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It was a somber Neal Brown who met with the media via Zoom Tuesday afternoon during his weekly press conference.
While West Virginia’s head football coach enjoyed the Mountaineers’ 24-6 victory over TCU Saturday, he also was saddened by the loss of a close friend.
John Schlarman, who had spent the past eight years as the offensive line coach at the University of Kentucky, died last Thursday after a lengthy bout with cancer.
Brown was one of those who spoke at the memorial service for Schlarman Monday afternoon in Lexington.
“It was a really tough day yesterday,” admitted WVU’s head coach on Tuesday. “He was a really close friend of mine both at Troy and the University of Kentucky.
“He battled valiantly for over two years the cancer that eventually took his life. He taught us valuable lessons, perspective being one. Secondly, how you live your life matters. We talk to our kids a lot about how you play the game matters. Johnny and I talked a lot about it when we were at Troy, when we were kind of starting in this deal, and that’s what you put on film matters. It really tells your story. If you’re a tough guy, your video should show you’re a tough guy. If you’re a guy who is an overachiever/strainer, then that’s what your video should show. I really think how you live your life matters.
“He lived with such humility and put others first. It was a tough day, man,” concluded Brown about Schlarman, who was a native of Fort Thomas, Kentucky. “I really loved that guy, and I really feel for his wife, Lee Anne, and their four young kids (Joseph, Benjamin, Matthew and Evelyn). I feel for that football program, too. He was a guy who meant a lot to them, and rightfully so. He was 45 years old, and that’s way too soon.”
Schlarman and Brown were assistants together at Troy (2006-09 for Brown and 2007-12 for Schlarman) and Kentucky (2013-14 for Brown and 2013-20 for Schlarman).
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Despite the sadness that went with losing a friend, Brown did spend time during Tuesday’s press conference discussing Mountaineer football.
After his first season as WVU’s head coach in 2019, in which West Virginia managed to rush for just 73.2 yards per game, Brown and his staff focused a great deal of attention on improving that part of their offensive attack.
While Brown said West Virginia’s ground efforts are not yet a finished product, the fact that WVU has more than doubled last year’s stats, currently averaging 156.9 rushing yards per game, are a testament to the strides the Mountaineer offense has made in that department.
“I think when you look at it as a whole, I knew we weren’t going to get it fixed in a year’s time,” said Brown of the run game. “I thought we would make significant gains, which we have.
“I think to be at a championship level, we have to continue that improvement. If you look at the statistics, we’re not at a championship level,” added the coach, whose 5-3 club is sixth in the Big 12 in rushing offense. “We are much improved, though.
“Since last December, we’ve put a huge emphasis on it, and I think that work has paid off, but I don’t think it’s a finished product. We still have work to do to take it to the next level.”
WVU is 5-0 this season when it has rushed for more than 130 yards, averaging 210 yards on the ground in those victories. On the other end, the Mountaineers have been held to less than 92 rushing yards in their three losses, and they are averaging just 67.3 yards on the ground in those defeats.
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Another positive statistical category for the 2020 Mountaineers is the play of their quarterback, Jarret Doege.
The junior QB is second in the Big 12 in passing yards (277.4 ypg), trailing only Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler (288.3 ypg).
While Doege easily has the most passing completions and attempts in the league (203 of 308), he has just three interceptions, which is the fewest of any full-time starter in the Big 12.
Doege hasn’t thrown an interception in WVU’s last four games, and now has a streak of 173 passes since the last time he was picked off, which was in the third quarter against Kansas.
“He’s playing at high level, but there is a little bit of luck that goes into that,” admitted Brown of Doege’s interception avoidance. “The Tomlinson kid (TCU defensive back Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, who is the nephew of Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson) dropped one on Saturday, so there is some luck involved in that. But I think (Doege’s) decision-making has been really good. He’s done a nice job with his eyes, because your eyes are what get you in trouble. If you don’t have your eyes on the safeties and your eyes on the windows, that’s when your interception numbers go up.
“Really outside of one play on Saturday, where he should have taken a sack and was called for grounding, his decisions on when to scramble, when to take the sack, when to throw the ball away have been much better since probably the overtime against Baylor.”
Doege will have to remain spot on during West Virginia’s final two games of the 2020 regular season, as WVU’s next two opponents – Oklahoma (5-2) on Nov. 28 and Iowa State (5-2) on Dec. 5 – are tied for second in the Big 12 with seven interceptions each. Only the Mountaineers, whose defense has picked off 10 passes in their eight games, have more.