Veteran K-State Lineup Key To First-Year Success
West Virginia head coach Neal Brown isn’t surprised that this week’s opponent, Kansas State, is having a good season. The Wildcats, despite a loss to Texas on Saturday, have already reached bowl eligibility, standing 6-3 overall and 3-3 in the Big 12, and have the conference’s most notable upset with a victory over Oklahoma.
“I don’t pay attention to preseason expectations,” Brown said of views that are based on projections and a healthy bit of guesswork.
What stands out to the Mountaineer head coach is the experience that K-State head coach Chris Klieman has on his squad – something that he hopes to have in future seasons at WVU.
“They are a veteran team,” Brown observed. “On offense they start five redshirt seniors on the offensive line, and start eight seniors overall on offense. On defense they start six seniors and three juniors. They have played a lot of football, and they play really well as a team in all three phases.”
Brown’s team is absorbing a lot of setbacks, something that he said the Wildcats experienced last season (“They took some lumps”), while noting they are benefiting from the lessons learned there.
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Interest and attention continue to be paid to potential West Virginia lineup changes, but Brown did not list any specific modifications to the starting lineup, while noting that the results of the Texas Tech game lend themselves to across the board considerations.
“When you play as poorly as we did defensively, you have to look at all things,” Brown stated plainly. “We played as bad as you can play on defense in the first half. We gave up five touchdowns on the first five possessions, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of that. I thought we did some positive things offensively, but we didn’t finish well. I would say everybody and everyone is under evaluation.”
WVU has worked in several freshmen and newcomers over the past several weeks, with expected up and down performances resulting. Tight end T.J. Banks and running back Tony Mathis received their first calls of the 2019 season against the Red Raiders.
“Tony Mathis will continue to play,” Brown said, reiterating his statements concerning the true freshman running back. “He was really nervous. He crossed his feet a couple of times, and his feet got out from under him, but had a nice run to finish on that last catch. I like his running style.”
Chances to use Mathis, and fellow running backs Kennedy McKoy and Leddie Brown, have dwindled as blocking in the run game has deteriorated. Mountaineer backs had only 14 carries against the Red Raiders, totaling 43 yards (3.1 per attempt).
West Virginia’s red zone brownouts are another area of concern, with the inability to run the ball a contributing factor, along with poor execution in the passing game. WVU had at least one blown passing route in close, and a bad throw on another pass play.
“The red zone is not an easy fix or we’d have already done it,” Brown said. “If you can’t run it, it’s tough because you run out of room, and we had negative (rushing) plays in the red zone.”
As for pass plays, Brown said he was happy with the calls themselves, but not so much the results. He mentioned the gaffes in route running in his postgame comments on Saturday, and was also incensed with a couple of potential pass interference calls that were not flagged when Texas Tech defender DaMarcus Fields grabbed Sam James’ hand and pinned it for a couple of steps, preventing him from getting it up into catching position until very late in the play.
“I have to get some clarification on what is legal hand checking,” said Brown, who stated his case forcefully to both officials on the WVU sideline, as well as to referee Reggie Smith. “But we have to do a better job of getting (defenders’) hands off.”
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With a depleted roster, recruiting will be critical in this and the next couple of cycles. Brown reiterated WVU’s plans in terms of the regions in which he will concentrate his efforts.
“We have primary and secondary areas,” he said. “The primary is a circle that is about a six-hour drive to Morgantown. The secondary is the southeast – Georgia, Florida and Alabama, and the junior colleges in Mississippi and Kansas. We also use some of our connections in Texas, and I have great respect for high school football there, but it’s a long way and there are a lot of schools that recruit there. We will spot recruit, but it is not one of our primary areas.”
Past West Virginia staffs have attempted to make inroads in the Lone Star State, both via coaches who hailed from the area and when WVU joined the Big 12, but the results achieved were not worth the effort and cost involved in getting boots on the ground.