Week Of Emphasis, Not Structural Change Drives WVU Improvement
In the week of practice following the Missouri game, West Virginia’s coaching staff opened up competition for playing time, and also emphasized a handful of practice items to address some of the shortcomings from that contest. Chief among those were a push for more physical play and improved technique in both blocking and tackling.
“We didn’t change structure of practice,” Brown noted of the shifts that were more subtle than seismic. “We did a little more good on good work, more tackling and more drills that emphasized the interior run game and perimeter blocking. We always practice smart. We prepared a lot better during the week, so I knew we had a chance. We’re a young football team that didn’t play well against Missouri, and we challenged our guys and had physical practices. We blocked better and tackled better, and we fed off the crowd.”
The changes during the week extended through the N.C. State game plan, which shifted to more motion and more perimeter runs, especially early in the game. That helped take some pressure off some linemen making their first starts.
“You can’t continue to do the same things. You have to adapt,” said Brown, showing the direct opposite attitude of some coaches who remain married to their schemes. “It’s not about what we are most comfortable with (as coaches), it’s what our kids can do the best. We’ve struggled to run the football so we recreated ourselves to try to put our offensive line in a better position. I thought our o-line communicated better. We had hats on hats a lot more this week.”
Keeping the momentum up for this week is the next in what will be a series of challenges for Brown and his staff, not to mention his players. They responded very well to the coaching during last week, and the attention and focus they showed will be important as the season unfolds.
“We have to continue to challenge our guys,” Brown said. “I thought this was the first game we identified who we are and doing what we want to do. We won and beat a quality team, but there still a ton of things we can work on and improve upon. We are at a point where [the run game] is going to have to be presented differently each week. We aren’t at the point right now where we can just line up and mash people.”
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Halftime adjustments, or lack thereof are always a buzz phrase used to explain shifts in performance, and Brown noted that each game so far has played out differently in terms of what was planned at the break.
“It’s a credit to our coaches, but we have to play better in the first half,” Brown said with a chuckle. “The first game we were going against new staff. The second game, the whole first half was bad football. We were able to refocus the guys. This game, N.C. State had not shown much at all, and they had a new offensive coordinator and a different defense. They hadn’t been stressed at all. So we were able to make some adjustments, especially on the defensive side after seeing what they did in first half.”
Also playing in to the overall WVU improvement, in addition to the blocking both on the line and at receiver, was the performance of the backs.
“Our running backs ran the ball harder and were more decisive,” Brown said when asked to identify one of the bigger improvements on the day. “There was less hesitation. That was the biggest positive of our offensive performance on Saturday.”
The offensive line, with three new starters, responded well. Brown also singled out one displaced starter who had a very good showing while alternating at guard in a relief role.
“I thoughts Chase Behrndt played his best game of the season. He was critical on some of our biggest run plays and he strained. He was big a factor as anybody,” said Brown of Behrndt, who has bounced between center and guard this year.
“(James) Gmiter, a guy who has just been on offense for a little while, for his first start, I thought he fared well. There are things he has to improve on, but he stayed in good body position. Briason Mays played with great effort.”
The showings give WVU a glimmer of hope that it can get a bit more of a rotation going along a line that has been more unsettled than the Venezuelan government this year. A return from injury could help bolster that hope.
“Josh Sills we’re not sure of yet, maybe Wednesday or Thursday,” Brown said of the junior’s potential return. “We only played six this past week so we should be able to rotate a few more guys and maybe get it up to seven or eight.”
He added that he expects Mike Brown to play this week after missing last week due to reported illness.
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Brown said receiver Tevin Bush, who was suspended last week, will return to the team to practice on Monday.
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Brown has mentioned more than once that he uses a chart and analytics to drive some football decisions, and that was in play near the end of last Saturday’s win. Leading 44-27, Brown had holder Josh Growden take the snap in a standing position and kneel rather than kicking the extra point. That removed the possibility of a blocked kick and return for a two-point score, which would have made it a two-possession game with 3:04 to play.
“We use a data analytics company and they give you different scenarios at end of game,” Brown explained. “At that point there’s no difference between a 17- and 18-point game. It [the extra point] is blocked, now it’s a two possession game and you bring in the ability to score and get onside kick. It may be unorthodox but it makes sense.”
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Looking ahead to Kansas, Brown, like most observers, noted the similarities between the Jayhawks and Mountaineers heading into their meeting on Saturday in Lawrence. Both teams had disappointing showings in week two, but bounced back with convincing wins against Power 5 opponents.
“Neither one of us pleased with how we played,” Brown said. “Kansas responded well, and they had great belief coming out to Boston College. Without a doubt those were two quality wins. Both teams will come into this Saturday’s game with confidence.”
The Jayhawks provided the front bookend of an ACC sweep for the Big 12, pounding the Eagles 48-24 on Friday evening.