WVU’s Young Pups Show Some Bite
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – No chance, no way. West Virginia’s hopes of running the football Saturday against N.C. State seemed remote.
After all, two games into the 2019 season, the Mountaineers had managed just 34 rushing yards in its tough season-opening win over James Madison and only 30 in the blowout loss at Missouri.
The Wolfpack had limited its first two foes – East Carolina and Western Carolina – to a total of 49 rushing yards.
On top of all that, WVU was down two offensive linemen, as starting guards Josh Sills (shoulder injury) and Michael Brown (illness),were each out of the lineup. That meant that senior incumbent tackles Colton McKivitz and Kelby Wickline would be joined by newbies James Gmiter and John Hughes at the guard spots, as well as redshirt freshman Briason Mays at center.
A disaster waiting to happen, right?
West Virginia ran for 173 yards, and its line also provided more than adequate pass protection for quarterback Austin Kendall, who threw for 272.
It all added up to a 44-27 Mountaineer victory.
“It’s one of those things,” said WVU’s first-year head coach Neal Brown of the adjustments in his o-line. “As a coach, you’ve got to keep trying until you find that right mix. I think that’s one of the really fun things about coaching. You keep trying. It’s also one of the things that’s really difficult. It’s hard to play offensive line. Michael was sick all week and didn’t practice. He couldn’t play. Josh was hurt, so he couldn’t play. Those guys that were in there – Briason Mays made his first start, James Gmiter made his first start, and John Hughes made his first start. Chase Behrndt (who rotated at right guard with Hughes) played a lot of football. I haven’t watched the film yet, but my hunch is that he played with a different type of edge than he’s played with.
“They’re all led by Colton McKivitz,” added Brown. “Colton to me, he’s a dude. He prepares like a dude, he plays like a dude, he leads like a dude. Then Kelby Wickline had his best week of practice, and I think that showed. I think our communication was better than it has been. I know for a fact we blocked way better on the perimeter and then our running backs got vertical. They went north and south a lot better.”
West Virginia (2-1) was able to run wide on N.C. State in the first half with a variety of outside zones from its backs and jet sweeps from its receivers. That caused the Wolfpack problems, and when the visitors tried to adjust to that, the Mountaineers began having success inside. After running for 65 yards in the first half, most of it to the outside, WVU mashed State for 108 more yards on the ground in the second half, much of it up the middle.
“One the biggest problem for our run defense was the edges,” admitted N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren, whose club dropped to 2-1 on the season. “They were running – whether it was a jet or a stretch play – they were running the edge plays on our defense. Several times, particularly early, there were RPO plays where they had posts behind them. So, they put you in a deal where your defensive back has to make some plays, and you’re having to come up out of zone coverage and set edges, and sometimes we did and sometimes we didn’t. A couple times they cracked our edge, and we didn’t replace it very well.
“They were putting their formations into the boundary in the second half, pinning our ‘backer and getting around it,” the seventh-year N.C. State coach continued. “They did a good job. Those were plays they hadn’t run (in the first two games), so we hadn’t practiced, and we didn’t do a good job adjusting to them. You have to be able to adjust throughout the game when you get things that you didn’t practice.”
There was precious little starting experience among the majority of the first line that went onto the field for WVU at the beginning of the game. McKivitz, a senior, was making his 38th start, and at the other tackle Wickline, also a senior, was making his sixth. But after that, Gmiter and Mays, both redshirt freshmen, and Hughes, a sophomore who transferred to West Virginia this spring from Navarro (Texas) College, had never previously started in their Mountaineer careers.
The young pups showed some bite, though.
“To see them perform at that level was cool,” said McKivitz of his youthful linemates. “Now it’s a mater of moving forward and getting better.
“Our mentality was just to get after guys,” he added. “We came into the week determined to be physical and get after people, and I think that was the biggest key.”
Senior running back Kennedy McKoy led West Virginia’s rushing attack with 66 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore Leddie Brown, who had missed the first two games of the season with an injury, added 35 more yards and another score. Even Kendall got in on the fun, accumulating 33 rushing yards, 25 of which came on one mad dash.
In all the Mountaineers averaged 6.2 yards on their 28 carries against the ‘Pack.
Coming into Saturday, WVU was averaging a measly 1.1 yards per rushing attempt.
“We didn’t know what to expect, but we were put in a situation with Mike Brown being sick and Josh having an injury, we didn’t have many choices,” noted WVU offensive line coach Matt Moore. “We had to get (the young linemen) ready, and they did a great job of preparing themselves all week.
“We just asked them to play hard, and we’d live with any mistakes, because they hadn’t had many live reps,” Moore concluded. “They got after it, and that’s what we asked them to do.”