MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — While those at the top of West Virginia University and its athletic department were busy this week saving the Big 12 Conference in the wake of the stunning defections by Oklahoma and Texas by adding Cincinnati, Houston, Central Florida and Brigham Young, WVU football coach Neal Brown and his assistants have been tinkering under the hood of the football team to fix the many things that went wrong in a 30-24 opening loss at Maryland.
The opponent is Long Island University, an FCS team that lost its season opener, 48-10, at Florida International last week.
A sunny, 77-degree day is predicted for the 5 p.m. Mountaineer Field kickoff as game operations return to normalcy, with tailgating allowed and no limits on attendance for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit last season. In Morgantown, a football weekend is something cherished by alumni and fans alike, no matter who the opponent.
The bars and restaurants, fighting to come back from a difficult year, gladly welcomed football frolickers back Friday night while the grills in the parking lots will be fired up for both pre-game and post-game festivities as friends who haven't seen each other in a couple years pick up where they left off.
That is not what Neal Brown wants out of his football team. He was disappointed in the opener and almost welcomed this week's practice schedule to get ready not so much for LIU, but for the oncoming season.
Longtime rival Virginia Tech, impressive in upsetting North Carolina in its opener, is next week's rival at Mountaineer Field before WVU heads to Oklahoma to play the Sooners, two games that could decide the fate of Year 3 in the Neal Brown era.
"This is not about Long Island University. It's about us," Neal Brown said. "It's not that we lost, but how we lost."
Committing four turnovers was No. 1 on the list of things that had to be changed, quarterback Jarret Doege throwing a pair of interceptions, running back Leddie Brown losing a key fumble and punt returner Winston Wright Jr, who had a record-shattering day, returning kickoffs, muffed a punt.
"The turnover margin is the most critical," Brown said "If that was different, we're sitting here having a different conversation, even though we didn't play very well. If we didn't turn the ball over, we win. Turnovers are the most important thing."
The two interceptions, an intentional grounding call and the lost rushing yards made Doege the target of an angry crowd on social media who already want to have Brown change to Garrett Greene at quarterback, but Brown wasn't quite so critical on his QB.
"If you look back, he did some good things," Brown said "The first drive, it's kind of bang-bang. He throws a great ball right on the up-field shoulder of Leddie Brown and Leddie does the rest (for a touchdown). One third downs, he was a lot better. I think we had 14 end-of-series situations, and the ones we threw it were pretty successful.
"The things he's got to get better at is he can't make bad plays worse."
High on the list of things the coach hoped to achieve this week was to create a physical aura about his team, something he felt was lacking at Maryland, especially in the offensive line.
The O-line paved the way for just 48 net rushing yards in a throwback performance to two years ago. Running back Leddie Brown gained 73 net yards, but an often-harassed Doege showed none of the movement in the pocket that he reportedly had picked up between seasons and had minus-25 rushing yards.
No one denied that the O-line's performance, which was expected to be improved this season, was disappointing.
"We're very capable of better," guard James Gmiter said this week. "I'm clearly disappointed in our performance. The coaches were disappointed. We worked really hard since last season, put in a lot of work, and we didn't have those mishaps between spring ball and in camp but they came out against Maryland. That was disappointing and kind of step back for us, but we'll be better next week."
The running game might get a kickstart if Tony Mathis Jr., who is Leddie Brown's backup, is healthy this week after missing last week.
Because of that, Leddie Brown was the only running back to carry the ball in the game, and he and Doege were the only ones credited with rushes.
Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, it doesn't look like starting tight end Mike O'Laughlin will be back from the lower leg injury that ruined his preseason camp. While T.J Banks filled in adequately this week, both the run game and the pass game would get a boost from his return to the play the way he did through the second half of last season.
Defensively Brown was trying to make some fixes in the secondary where there were both technical errors and problems with communications, both between players and getting assignments from the sideline.
Daryl Porter Jr., a redshirt freshman making his first college start, got burned twice and they spent a good part of this week building up his confidence and working to fix the problems he faced against a really strong receiving corps from Maryland.
"Any coach says you have to have a short memory and DP does, too," defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley said. "He has to learn from it because those are not going to be the last good receivers he plays against in his college career."
The good news, of course, is with all that was wrong in the opener, WVU had a chance to win right down to the end, so it's reasonable to expect that with a week of hard, physical work they should get better for LIU. And the game experience, even if it is against a team that doesn't figure to offer much of a challenge, will help get the Mountaineers ready for what lies ahead in the following two weeks.