Neal Brown’s Mountaineers enjoyed a winning record at 6-4 in 2020 and for just the second time in the last nine years, they capped the season with a bowl win.
West Virginia showed a lot of improvement in tangible and intangible areas from Brown’s first year at the helm.
Health – Health is often a matter of luck, but in the midst of a pandemic, luck had to combine with personal responsibility in order to keep players on the field.
Until the regular season finale against Oklahoma was canceled because a large number of Mountaineers either tested positive for COVID-19 or were contact traced to those who did, West Virginia’s players generally did a good job of avoiding the coronavirus.
WVU was relatively fortunate when it came COVID-19 cases – at least until regular season finale – and it was also lucky on the injury front as well.
Placekicker Evan Staley missed the final four games after sustaining a torn ACL, and bandit linebacker VanDarius Cowan suffered a knee sprain that forced him to the sidelines for six games in the middle of the season.
Certainly there were other bumps, bruises and sprains along the way, but no other Mountaineer in the two-deep besides Staley or Cowan missed more than a game or two because of injury or illness.
In all, nine WVU players started all 10 games in 2020, including its three defensive linemen Darius Stills, Jeffery Pooler and Dante Stills, as well as safeties Sean Mahone and Alonzo Addae, plus running back Leddie Brown, offensive lineman Michael Brown, quarterback Jarret Doege and cornerback Nicktroy Fortune.
Another seven started nine games (offensive linemen Chase Behrndt and Zach Frazier, linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo, wide receiver Bryce Ford-Wheaton, cornerback Dreshun Miller, tight end Mike O’Laughlin, safety Tykee Smith), while offensive tackle Brandon Yates and linebacker Tony Fields started eight games, and linebacker Dylan Tonkey started seven.
So that’s 19 out of the 22 on the first unit were on the field at game’s start for at least seven contests.
Other than right offensive tackle, which saw John Hughes start the first six games and Briason Mays the final four, and bandit linebacker, where four different players got a chance to start, West Virginia’s starting lineup was pretty consistent throughout the year. And most of that was the result of the fact that the Mountaineer players were lucky enough and wise enough to stay fairly healthy.
Facility renovations – Despite the economic downturn suffered throughout college athletics – and most every U.S. business for that matter – brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, WVU pushed forward with its planned renovations at Mountaineer Field.
Much of the work was already in progress when the world turned upside by the coronvarius starting in March, and the funds for that work were committed solely for those projects, so stopping midstream wasn’t really a logical option.
A new HD videoboard replaced the old SD one in the south end of Mountaineer Field. While a total of just 34,265 fans in attendance at WVU’s five home contests this year were able to see the new videoboard in person, its quality will be appreciated – hopefully – by much larger crowds in 2021 and in the future.
Also the Puskar Center, which is the operations hub for the Mountaineer Football program, is undergoing a $55 million makeover.
In the last few years, West Virginia has added a new team room, and completely changed out the training room and cafeteria in the Puskar Center. This round of renovation work took much of the main floor and the home locker room down to the studs and rebuilt them from the ground up. The new locker room is complete, and the work on the coaches’ offices, position meeting rooms and a Hall of Traditions atrium is moving along. The entire reno project is scheduled to be finished later this spring.
The improvements coming with a hefty financial obligation, especially during these tough economic times, but WVU director of athletics Shane Lyons feels it is a wise investment to insure the health of the Mountaineer football program, which is the fiscal driving force for the entire athletic department, for many years to come.
Close games – The Mountaineers played five football games this past season that were one-score affairs heading into the concluding moments.
WVU was 2-3 in those close contests, which was actually a step back from Neal Brown’s first year at the helm, when it was 4-2 in one-score games.
There’s no doubt that West Virginia was overall a better football team in 2020 (6-4) than 2019 (5-7), but it didn’t really discover a way prevail a majority of the time when the going was tight.
WVU did win a pair of very close contests in 2020, defeating Baylor (27-21) in double overtime and Army (24-21) in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
But imagine how different West Virginia’s ‘20 season would have been if it hadn’t given up a couple of scoop-and-score fumble returns in hard luck losses at Oklahoma State (27-13 with the Cowboys tacking on a late TD) and at Texas Tech (34-27)? And/or if WVU would have converted on either of its fourth quarter red zone opportunities in its 17-13 defeat at Texas? Close games usually have a pivotal play or two, and WVU didn’t come through at the key moment in those three tight losses.
Certainly no team is going to win every close game, but the good ones seem to find a way to win more than their share.
How different would have the league standings have looked if the Big 12’s regular season champ Iowa State, who finished with a 9-3 overall record, hadn’t been 4-2 in close games and ninth-place Baylor, which had a 2-7 overall record, hadn’t been 1-4 in its tight contests? Winning close ones is a huge key in the overall season.
Penalties – The penalty problem was a new one for the Mountaineers in 2020.
The season before, Neal Brown’s first leading WVU, West Virginia had the third fewest penalty yards assessed per game in the Big 12 with an average of just 48.9 per game.
But for some reason, with the same coaches and many of the same players, the Mountaineers’ penalty yardage ballooned to 74.1 per game this past season, which was the ninth most in the Big 12. Only Texas with 77.0 per game had more penalty yards than WVU within the Big 12 in ’20.
Not only was West Virginia ninth in the Big 12 in penalty yards, but it was also a lowly 116th in the FBS.
The Mountaineers did a better job of avoiding penalties as the 2020 season went along. They averaged 10.0 accepted penalties per game for an average of 92.3 yards in their first four outings, but in the last six contests, that number went down to an average of 7.0 penalties per game for an average of 63.2 yards.
Interestingly, a high number of flags wasn’t a determining factor for WVU in 2020 when it came to wins and losses. It was 4-1 when it had at least eight penalties in a game, and 2-3 when it had seven or less.
Attendance – Admittedly in the face of a global pandemic in which more than 430,000 Americans and over two million people worldwide have died because of COVID-19, whining about being unable to attend a college sporting event is in extremely poor taste.
Certainly, though, the atmosphere around Mountaineer Field wasn’t the same this past season, as state and local health departments greatly reduced the number of fans who were allowed into the stadium.
WVU’s first two home games of the season were played with just family and friends in attendance, and the crowds didn’t reach 1,000 for either.
In West Virginia’s final three home games of 2020, tickets were available, but never was the allotment of 15,000 completely used. The biggest Mountaineer Field crowd this past season was for the TCU game, when 11,111 were in the stands.
I don’t blame health department officials for being cautious, and I don’t blame fans who didn’t want to risk exposure and instead chose to stay home and watch WVU’s game on TV. Still, with minimal attendance, there wasn’t much atmosphere at Mountaineer Field this season.
West Virginia totaled 34,265 fans for its five home games in 2020. You could double that five-game total and it still would not be as many as were in Mountaineer Field on Nov. 20, 1993 when a stadium-record 70,222 witnessed No. 9 WVU knock off No. 4 Miami, 17-14.
Hopefully next year tailgating, big crowds and excitement all return to Mountaineer Field. I’ll even take the endless concession/restroom lines and the hours-long traffic jams for some of the old-fashion game-day atmosphere.