West Virginia football head coach Neal Brown is taking the it’s-not-you, it’s-me approach heading into the Mountaineers’ home opener against Long Island on Saturday.
It’s hard to blame him as WVU should have its FCS foe outmatched and outmanned at every conceivable level once the ball goes into the air at 5 p.m. on Milan Puskar Stadium. The game will be available on Big 12 Now and ESPN+.
A little self-evaluation likely would have been the goal against the Sharks regardless what happened in the team’s first game at Maryland. However, coming off a mistake-filled 30-24 loss to the Terrapins and with consecutive games against No. 19 Virginia Tech and No. 4 Oklahoma lying just ahead, the process of diagnosing and addressing issues becomes even more paramount.
“It’s really more about us,” Brown said. “We’re going to play a lot of people this week. We’re going to play some people that didn’t play a week ago. We’re going to give our young guys plenty of opportunities to get out there and show that they’re capable of playing.”
It remains to be seen what kind of crowd reception the Mountaineers get, but during his press conference Tuesday Brown said he hoped the environment, coming at the first game at Milan Puskar Stadium without crowd restrictions since 2019, would be a positive one, especially with a plethora of extra activities involved.
“It’s Family Day on campus, the student families will be in, we talked about 9/11 and it’ll be the 20th anniversary there, we’re going to honor the 2020 seniors, it will be Heroes Day honoring West Virginia first responders, there’s going to be a lot going on,” Brown said. “But for us within this building, the most important thing is what we get done in practice this week. We’ve got a starting point that nobody is really happy with and we have to improve.
“I hope our fans don’t give up on us after one game and I don’t believe they will. I get that they’re frustrated and I think our players and our staff are frustrated as well.”
Long Island (0-1) is in the infancy of its Division I tenure. The Sharks played their first season in the FCS in 2019, going 0-10, with only two of those games being decided by one possession or less. Last year, Long Island played just four games in a pandemic-shortened season, going 2-2.
This year, Long Island will start its season with three straight games against FBS competition, and that started with a 48-10 loss at Florida International last week. The Sharks will visit Miami (Ohio) next week.
Against the Panthers, Long Island yielded 594 yards of offense while its own offense mustered just one touchdown. Quarterback Camden Orth completed 15 of 30 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown with wideout Derick Eugene grabbing seven passes for 115 yards and a score. Seven ball carriers combined to gain 96 yards on 36 rushes.
Yet, that total was much higher than the 48 net yards on 21 attempts that the Mountaineers managed against the Terrapins. And that was just one issue.
WVU turned the ball over four times, allowed 496 yards thanks to a slow start defensively and fatigue late, didn’t force a turnover and averaged just 39 yards per punt. Additionally, the Mountaineers scored just three points in the second half and squandered a red-zone opportunity trailing by two points midway through the fourth quarter.
Brown lamented the physicality of the team’s offensive line and defense (at times), pointed to inconsistent play from quarterback Jarret Doege, mistakes on special teams and of course those four turnovers.
Yes, there was plenty for Brown to point at, but even in the aftermath, most involved seemed ready to put last week behind them. And no matter the opponent, Brown believes that the best days for this team are still squarely ahead.
“I still have extreme faith that we’re gong to prevail and we’re going to build a program here that’s going to have a great infrastructure and be set up to win long term,” Brown said. “But I’m also not blind to what our brutal facts are right now, which is that we’re 0-1 and we didn’t play very well.
“As we move forward, we’ve got to learn from it and grow. We didn’t perform very well and we’re judged on games and that’s the way it is in this business. One game won’t ruin a season.”
INJURY UPDATE: The Mountaineers were without a couple of key pieces against the Terrapins last week with starting tight end Mike O’Laughlin and backup running back Tony Mathis each missing the game due to injury. As of Tuesday, Brown said he was “hopeful” that Mathis would be ready to go Saturday while listing O’Laughlin as “doubtful”.