Heading into WVU’s first football game, one concern that was front and center was, well, the center up front.
Redshirt sophomore Matt Jones was inserted after only playing a handful of snaps last season against Iowa State. And, suddenly, there he was starting in a Top 25 battle under the lights at FedExField being aired nationally by ABC.
Truth be told, Jones had some shaky moments. In the second quarter, he was whistled for holding on first down after David Sills had made a catch. The Mountaineers couldn’t make up the ground and punted.
Later in the quarter, on a third and five, Jones was again called for a hold, but after QB Will Grier only ran for four yards, Virginia Tech declined.
And then, on the game’s last play, after Grier misfired right, WVU fans held their collective breath until the game official called “holding offense, No. 79; illegal block offense, No. 79; the game is over.”
Yet check the NCAA statistics. WVU has the nation’s No. 15 total offense, even after a rugged game against No. 18 Tech. The Mountaineer rushing attack is a respectable No. 44 (221 yards). And West Virginia’s offensive line allowed but two sacks.
It pleased Jones, who hails from Hubbard, Ohio, northeast of Youngstown.
“It was awesome,” Jones said. “I’ve been dreaming of playing for the Mountaineers since I was little. I was really excited and anxious to get out there and play.
“It was just a good time, a great atmosphere. It was a storybook beginning.”
Just not the ending.
“We were just going fast,” Jones said. “We knew we had to go. Just couldn’t get it done, I don’t know. We played a hard game. The ball didn’t bounce our way, but it’s all right. Virginia Tech is a great team. We’ll bounce back.”
Jones said he felt he handled the line calls well for a first outing.
“I felt pretty good,” he said. “Coach [Joe] Wickline and Coach [Jake] Spavital had me prepared to be the leader of the offensive line. There was an adjustment because of the speed. I hadn’t really played since I was a senior in high school. I mean, it was fast, but it was good. I got used to it pretty quick. I felt comfortable.”
It was much different though than his days at Hubbard.
“In high school I was always the biggest guy,” Jones, 6-foot-3, 315 pounds, said. “Then, when I got here, it was a big transition. You have to get used to it. [Strength] Coach [Mike] Joseph and his staff got me prepared physically. It took two years to get physically prepared. And then Wickline and Spavital got me schematically prepared. They had me feeling confident. Also, my O-line and quarterback had trust in me and I had trust in them.”
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Another area of concern for WVU fans was the cornerback position. With defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s love of the blitz, the corners have to hold up. And Doug Belk, West Virginia’s position coach there, seemed pleased after the Virginia Tech game.
“I thought they played pretty well,” Belk said. “Not a ton of mental errors. But there are a lot of things we can improve on. We played three guys and want to get in as many as we can.”
One surprise was the lack of playing time for Syracuse transfer and former Orange starter Corey Winfield.
“He played on special teams,” Belk said. “He’s coming along [from finger surgery], but he just hasn’t practiced very much. And with what they did offensively and with the magnitude of the game, I didn’t want to put him in without knocking the rust off. We’ll let him continue to heal and get better. We’re expecting a lot from him. We’ll work him in as we can.”
The one backup corner that did see action, Elijah Battle, had good moments and bad. As Tech was en route to a 17-10 lead, Battle allowed tight end Chris Cunningham to ramble 39 yards to the WVU 18 on a deep out.
“He had that critical error in the third quarter,” Belk said. “Bad eye placement. He let the guy behind him. A miscommunication on his part. Other than that, though, I thought he played well. He did have a pass interference called at the end of the game, but it’s something we can work through.”
Starter Hakeem Bailey and linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton led the team in tackles with eight.
“Hakeem started off slow,” Belk said. “A little shaky. The speed of the game was a little different for him [from junior college]. He’s been really consistent though since he stepped on campus and did really well in the second half. He led us in tackles and made a couple big plays in the second half. Once he settled in, he played well.”
And Belk had no issues with the other starting cornerback, Mike Daniels, a senior.
“He played well,” said the coach. “He played aggressively and with confidence. I’m really happy with the way he competed. I know he was waiting on his opportunity and did well.”
Belk was asked if Winfield would play more in Saturday’s game against East Carolina.
“For the moment we’ll go with the guys that are ready,” he said.