The West Virginia University football team won its first game of the 2019 season, but not without some causes for concern — especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Chief among those concerns is the play of the offensive line. First-year coach Neal Brown said he was not pleased with the blocking in the Mountaineers’ 20-13 win against visiting James Madison — but that includes tight ends, receivers and running backs in addition to the linemen. Where Brown was particularly displeased with the line was a lack of physicality. It’s a problem he said he hopes WVU can fix before Saturday’s game at Missouri (Noon, ESPN2).
“We’re going to try, and part of that is — especially from the offensive line standpoint — is when guys get concerned about missing guys then they don’t come off the ball as hard,” Brown said. “That’s what I think happened a lot to us on Saturday. Those guys were playing either a new position or had never played before — meaningful snaps — and they wanted to make sure they got on their guy and they were scared of really coming off the ball for fear of missing and having a tackle for a loss.
“What we’ve got to do is you’ve got to play and get body position and you’ve got to use your hands where you can be explosive off the ball,” he continued. “If you do that, and you do what your coaches do and keep your eyes up you’ll make contact and you will get movement. I think that’s what we’ve got to do. Will we come out and run the ball like Army on Saturday? I don’t know, but I hope we’re a lot more physical than we were last Saturday.”
Considering all the shuffling along the West Virginia offensive line during the offseason, perhaps it should not come as a big surprise that there were some growing pains in the season opener. Senior Colton McKivitz, a preseason All-Big 12 selection, was at left tackle after starting at right tackle last season. Redshirt junior Josh Sills, a second-team All-Big 12 pick last season at guard, made his first college start at center against JMU. Senior Kelby Wickline started at right tackle for the first significant amount of playing time he has received in college, and the guard spots were occupied mostly by junior Mike Brown — who didn’t play at all in high school before coming to WVU by way of junior college — at left guard with Chase Behrndt and John Hughes splitting most of the snaps at right guard.
There were some positives to take from the line’s game against the Dukes. West Virginia quarterback Austin Kendall was only sacked once but was hurried a few times thanks to some missed assignments up front. The bad, however, was very bad. WVU ran the ball 24 times for a total of 34 yards. That is an average of 1.4 yards per carry. Some of that is on the running backs, but as WVU offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Matt Moore said, a large portion of that burden starts with the linemen and they were not up to the task against JMU.
“I was excited about the win, but it’s never fun when your group doesn’t perform to the standards that you set,” Moore said. “It starts with me. I felt like I had them prepared, and I don’t know if I over-prepared them but we played very careful — I guess you could say it like that.
“I watched the film and we did a pretty good job from an assignment standpoint, but we didn’t play with the type of strain we need to play with as far as getting movement,” Moore added. “That’s something that we’ve got to correct. That’s something I told my guys the other day. They owned it, I owned it and said, ‘Hey look, when you get a problem you’ve just got to go back to work and fix it.’ That’s what we’re working on this week is fixing that problem.”
Keeping Kendall on his feet and opening some holes for the running backs will be important this week at Mizzou, which is coming off an upset loss at Wyoming in which the Tigers did not play well on either side of the ball. Mizzou does, however, feature a usually stout defensive front led by All-Southeastern Conference defensive tackle Jordan Elliott.
“Overall I thought our protection [was good] with the exception of two [missed assignments], which were unfortunately two big hits on the quarterback,” Moore said. “But other than that our protection was pretty solid up front, which I was pleased with because [JMU’s] defensive ends are pretty good players. I thought the tackles held up pretty well against those guys, but run-game-wise you can look at the stat sheet and see it’s not a secret. It all starts with us. It’s not only us, but it starts with us. We’ve got to do a better job of getting movement at the point of attack and knocking people off the ball. We’ve got to do a better job at the tight end spot and we’ve got to do a better job at the running back spot, but it all starts with us and that starts with me.”