The West Virginia University football team has struggled to score points for long stretches in each of its first two games this season. In addition to being one of the worst rushing teams in the country so far in 2019, WVU has not had much success when it looks to stretch the field through the air.
It hasn’t happened consistently yet, but when the Mountaineers have been able to drive the ball, redshirt junior quarterback Austin Kendall has relied on redshirt freshman Sam James to make plays.
James leads the Mountaineers with 11 catches and is third on the team with 67 receiving yards. WVU’s two longest plays of the season have been a 41-yard touchdown pass to Tevin Bush in the opener against James Madison and a 46-yard touchdown to George Campbell late in the 38-7 blowout loss at Missouri. James isn’t who West Virginia has turned to to break big plays, but the hope is he can develop — for now at least — into that steady hand the team can turn to when it needs an important catch.
Or, as WVU offensive coordinator Matt Moore put it, James needs to turn into an “eraser” for the Mountaineers.
If something goes wrong on a play, James can be there to erase the negative. He’s not there yet, Moore said, but James has been the closest thing West Virginia has in the “eraser” department through two games.
If the Mountaineers hope to put on a better offensive showing Saturday when North Carolina State visits Milan Puskar Stadium (noon, Fox Sports 1), they will likely need to get James involved in the passing game again.
Against Missouri, James caught five passes for 35 yards. Most of that, however, came early in the game before the Tigers’ rout was on.
“[James] did a nice job with his releases [against Missouri] on the line with his secondary releases with his pad level, caught some balls, got straight up field, caught that screen and went straight up the field,” Moore said. “For the first three drives we were just really close, when you watch the film, to taking that thing down the field and scoring. It would have been a different ball game but all it takes is one guy. We miss a blitz or the quarterback misses a read and that’s when offenses fall apart unless you have erasers, and right now we don’t have an eraser. Sam is the closest thing we have to an eraser.”
First-year WVU coach Neal Brown said James was West Virginia’s best player early in the game against Missouri, but while offering praise for the young receiver made it a point to emphasize the words “first half” during his compliments. The message from the head coach was clear — when James is good Brown has liked what he sees. Now he wants — and probably needs — the redshirt freshman to do it for a full game and be a more consistent threat to catch the ball on important downs.
“[James] blocked well,” Brown said. “He was our best player — clearly — for the entire first half. He was explosive. I thought he did a good job getting the [defensive backs’] hands off him, which has been something we’ve emphasized. I think he will continue to grow. I was pleased. He didn’t play as well against James Madison and he came back in the first half of the game and played really well.”
One receiver Brown did not have much positive to say about this week was senior T.J. Simmons.
Simmons caught just one pass for 5 yards in the loss at Missouri and was a non-factor against the Tigers defense all afternoon. He did have five catches in the opener against James Madison for 58 yards, but Brown was not happy with what he saw last week on the road.
“[Simmons] has just got to play better,” Brown said. “He’s got to play faster, he’s got to block better — he’s got to play better. Got to get open.”
Kendall played most of the Missouri game last week with stitches in his right hand, according to Brown on his weekly radio show. The quarterback was hurt during the return on a first-quarter interception he threw.
Brown said until the Mountaineers can improve around Kendall, it will be hard to get a true read on just how good he is.
“He got hit 20 times,” Brown said Thursday. “It’s unfair to judge him till we do better around him,” Brown said. “Week 1 he had six drops. Last week he got hit 20 times. Can he play better? Yes. Has he been a negative? No.”
Saturday’s game between the Mountaineers and the Wolfpack will mark the first time NC State has played a Big 12 team since Philip Rivers led NCSU to a 56-26 win against Kansas in the 2003 Tangerine Bowl.
In fact, Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren was a linebackers coach for the Jayhawks in the game.
West Virginia, meanwhile, will be playing in its 82rd game against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent, with an overall record of 41-40. WVU has played an ACC team in each of the last three seasons — Syracuse in the 2018 Camping World Bowl, Virginia Tech in 2017 and Miami in the 2016 Russell Athletic Bowl.
WVU is, however, on a current four-game losing streak to the ACC, dating back a 37-0 shutout loss to Maryland in 2013. West Virginia’s last win against an ACC team came in 2012 when the Mountaineers beat the Terrapins 31-21 in Morgantown.