I’m about to use a word to describe West Virginia University’s football team that I didn’t think I would use during Neal Brown’s tenure as head coach.
Watching the Mountaineers claw out a win over Baylor on Saturday, I couldn’t help but think that, despite beating a pretty good Bears team, WVU was just … sloppy. From turnovers to penalties, West Virginia kept popping tires on the road to victory.
If not for the defense’s superhuman effort against Baylor and, frankly, a very fortunate replay decision, the Mountaineers probably don’t enter this bye week at 2-1. What WVU’s defense did to Baylor on Saturday was enough for Darius Stills to share Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week honors and be named Chuck Bednarik National Defensive Player of the Week. And if there were second places given for those awards, there would have been at least a couple of contenders from the Mountaineer roster.
If it weren’t for COVID-19, WVU’s offense should be carrying the defense’s shoulder pads off the practice field for them until the next game. Maybe the offense can run the defense’s wind sprints instead. It owes that unit something.
Yet even the strongest of efforts can’t be sustained through 100 percent of the game. From most angles, John Lovett looked like he crossed the goal line on his fourth-down run in the middle of the fourth quarter. There just wasn’t an angle the officials could use to overturn the call on the field of a successful goal-line stand. And even then, WVU’s defense had its back against the wall from the start of that drive after Baylor recovered a botched punt return at the WVU 27.
And, woof, that punt return. Alec Sinkfield had signaled for a fair catch when teammate Bryce Ford-Wheaton steamrolled him, putting the ball on the ground for Baylor’s Will Williams to recover. It was one of four turnovers — two fumbles and two interceptions — for WVU on the day. The ensuing Baylor drive also was aided by a Dreshun Miller pass interference flag, one of 12 penalties called on WVU on Saturday.
It was a game filled with gaffes for West Virginia, and those mistakes are starting to add up for the Mountaineers. WVU now has five turnovers on the year. That’s tied for 49th with 12 other teams among the 74 Football Bowl Subdivision teams that have played so far. The Mountaineers are just above rock bottom in penalties per game (tied for 68th at 10.7) and penalty yards per game (70th at 97.7).
It’s a surprising level of sloppiness from a team coached by someone who is anything but sloppy. Since arriving last season, Brown has buttoned up plenty with WVU’s football program. Moves like partnering with branding consultants are setting up the program for well into the future.
Now, his predecessor, Dana Holgorsen? He wasn’t exactly renowned as a coach with a microscopic attention to detail. Remnants of the Holgorsen era will linger for a little longer, and that could slow Brown’s process.
Still, the player responsible for three of WVU’s four turnovers versus Baylor, quarterback Jarret Doege, was someone Brown signed to the roster. Doege remains the best option at quarterback for West Virginia, but with games like Baylor, it’s starting to look like he won’t be the gunslinger that some fans have hoped.
During Monday’s Big 12 coaches conference call, Brown said that team discipline is developed in the offseason, something West Virginia’s program had little of due to COVID-19 restrictions. Yet every other team in the FBS dealt with restrictions as well. Some teams even had to wait longer to play their first games. WVU is near the bottom of the list of those teams in turnovers and penalties.
And of those penalties against Baylor, five were false starts, two were pass interference and two were unsportsmanlike conduct. Those are mistakes showing lack of focus. By the third game, offseason restrictions or not, those mistakes should be leaving the team’s system.
West Virginia’s bye week comes at an opportune time. And Kansas waits for the Mountaineers after that bye week and, the way the Jayhawks are playing, that might feel like another bye week. Now is the time to drill down on discipline. WVU may face Kansas next, but it finishes the season with Kansas State, Texas, TCU, Oklahoma and Iowa State, five teams talented enough to make opponents pay dearly for mistakes.
For the Mountaineers to continue their climb, they must eliminate those silly errors. Otherwise, one too many will send them tumbling back down the mountain.