What a difference a day makes.
On Saturday morning, anyone openly picking the West Virginia University football team to beat North Carolina State later that day was likely met with a round of rolled eyes and shaking heads.
This, after all, was a Mountaineer team that had just been embarrassed in a way few WVU teams have ever been embarrassed at Missouri the previous week. West Virginia couldn’t run the ball, couldn’t pass the ball, couldn’t block and couldn’t tackle. It wasn’t even a question of if N.C. State would win Saturday in Morgantown, but rather could WVU avoid another day like it had the previous week?
Fast-forward a few hours and we all received our answer. Not only did the Mountaineers avoid another unsightly Saturday, but West Virginia whipped the Wolfpack in all three phases of the game to send the old gold and blue faithful home happy.
The result, by itself, is interesting and worth dissecting. How the Mountaineers went from a team that looked lost to one that was quite the opposite has first-year head coach Neal Brown’s fingerprints all over it.
Brown hit the podium in Morganotwn last Tuesday for his weekly press conference promising to open the competition for playing time at several positions. Later that evening a new depth chart was released with Briason Mays, a redshirt freshman, listed as West Virginia’s new starter at center while Winston Wright, a true freshman, was on the top line at one of the receiver spots. Then on Saturday morning word started to trickle through the stadium that both of WVU’s starting offensive guards — Josh Sills on the left and Mike Brown on the right — would miss the game against N.C. State. That was confirmed when both Sills and Brown did not participate in warmups. Sills is hurt, according to WVU, and Brown missed practice during the week due to illness and was going to sit out Saturday. That opened the door for redshirt freshman James Gmiter on the left and sophomore John Hughes on the right.
All of West Virginia’s problems on offense prior to Saturday seemed to go back to poor play from the offensive line. The run game couldn’t get going because of poor blocking and quarterback Austin Kendall couldn’t get in a groove because he was busy running for his life behind the line of scrimmage. The offensive line had been bad before, so what were we to expect from a completely reshuffled middle three? The outlook was not good, to say the least.
Then a funny thing happened in front of more than 57,000 fans on Saturday afternoon — West Virginia found some momentum on offense for the first time in 2019 thanks in large part to the line play.
Brown, who calls plays in addition to being the head coach, was stretching runs to the outside, relying on left tackle Colton McKivitz and right tackle Kelby Wickline — pretty clearly the two linemen who have played the best this season — to lead the way. That allowed the linemen in the middle to get acclimated to the game. When it came time to start running behind them, Gmiter, Mays, Hughes and even Chase Behrndt were ready to answer the call.
The improved run game from West Virginia required N.C. State’s attention, which in turn began to open the field for the passing attack. Junior “H” receiver Tevin Bush was also missing from the lineup Saturday — apparently due to a suspension — which meant not only would Wright see plenty of playing time against the Wolfpack but fellow true freshman Ali Jennings could see some action as well. Kendall had more time to pass this week behind the revamped offensive line — he said as much to the media after the game — and began to seek out redshirt freshman receiver Sam James. Wright, Jennings and James all made important plays in the win Saturday.
On defense there were some more interesting personnel moves — and one that could not be helped.
True freshman defensive tackle Jordan Jefferson, who it is worth pointing out is still just 17 years old, got the start and played well alongside Dante Stills, Darius Stills and Reese Donahue on the interior of WVU’s defensive line.
Dylan Tonkery has been WVU’s usual starter at “Mike” linebacker, and did so again Saturday. Tonkery gave way at times to backup Shea Campbell, a Morgantown native, and WVU’s defense sure looked more comfortable with the former Morgantown Mohigan on the field.
Kerry Martin Jr. — the true freshman backup free safety readers in the Charleston area should know well from his days as a star on the gridiron for Capital High — was forced into action when the starter at free safety, Josh Norwood, was ejected for targeting early in the first quarter. Martin’s play was “up and down” according to Brown after the game, but the new Mountaineer coach added that the freshman from Charleston showed maturity and got better as the game went on.
These are good signs for West Virginia and provide plenty to build on in the future, but that comes with some questions going forward. When Sills and Mike Brown are healthy again, do they slide back into their starting spots on the offensive line despite that unit’s clear improvement without them Saturday? How deep in the doghouse is Tevin Bush, and is the Mountaineer coaching staff willing to burn the redshirts on Wright and/or Jennings? Is Campbell the right man for the job at Mike linebacker? Was all of this a one-week exception or can West Virginia sustain its momentum from the N.C. State win as the Mountaineers open Big 12 Conference play on the road this week at Kansas?
How Brown and West Virginia handle Saturday’s success will likely determine the fate of their 2019 season. Brown has had all the right answers so far, and when something hasn’t or doesn’t work he has been willing to own it and go back to the drawing board. Don’t go putting the Mountaineers in a bowl game just yet, but the outlook for WVU’s 2019 season is much, much less gloomy that it was for West Virginia this time last week.