MORGANTOWN — The message to the West Virginia University football team following last week’s lopsided loss at Missouri was simple — everyone needs to be better.
The offense, which had struggled to move the ball with any consistency, needed to be better. The defense, which missed double-digit tackles and numerous sack opportunities at Mizzou, needed to be better. Even WVU’s special teams had left a lot to be desired heading into Saturday’s game against visiting North Carolina State.
Consider the message received. West Virginia cleaned up its act in all phases of the game en route to a surprising 44-27 win against the Wolfpack at Milan Puskar Stadium.
“[It was a] big win,” first-year WVU coach Neal Brown said. “I’m really proud of our staff and our players. We talked about it all week — this is why i love football. It mirrors life in so many ways. To me, it’s not when you get back down, it’s how you respond. I’m so proud not just of our players, but our whole staff and how they responded this week.”
The Mountaineers (2-1) came into Saturday’s game with a struggling run game and a pass game yet to find its groove. During pregame warmups it was announced that WVU would be without both its starting offensive guards — redshirt junior Josh Sills on the right side and redshirt junior Mike Brown on the left — but the players tabbed as their replacements on Saturday, redshirt freshman James Gmiter and freshman John Hughes, played well. Chase Behrndt, who played behind redshirt freshman Briason Mays at center against NC State, also had a good game.
West Virginia had two touchdown drives in the first quarter — the first capped by a 20-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Austin Kendall to redshirt freshman receiver Sam James and the second by a 23-yard Kennedy McKoy touchdown run to put WVU ahead 14-7 late in the quarter.
Neither would have been possible without the improved play of the Mountaineer offensive line.
“It’s one of those things,” Brown said. “As a coach, you’ve got to keep trying until you find that right mix. I think that’s one of the really fun things about coaching — you keep trying. It’s one of the things that’s really difficult, and it’s hard to play offensive line.
“They’re all led by [redshirt senior left tackle] Colton McKivitz,” Brown said. “Colton, to me, he’s a dude. He prepares like a dude, he plays like a dude, he leads like a dude. Then [redshirt senior right tackle] Kelby Wickline had his best week of practice and I think that showed. I think our communication was better than it has been, and I know for a fact we blocked way better on the perimeter and then our running backs got vertical.”
NC State (2-1) did put up a fight against WVU on Saturday, especially early. Trailing 14-7 to start the second quarter, the Wolfpack capped a 12-play, 80-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run by Jordan Houston to tie the game. West Virginia couldn’t score on either of its following two drives, and with a little more than six minutes to play in the half NC State went to work.
Sophomore quarterback Matt McKay found some seams in the WVU defense as NC State worked its way down the field to set up a double pass for a touchdown from receiver Thayer Thomas to tight end Cary Angeline. The extra point was good, and despite playing its best football of the season the Mountaineers found themselves trailing for the first time Saturday.
WVU took over at its own 25 with 3:13 to play in the second quarter and worked efficiently. With 34 seconds to go, Kendall found Florida State graduate transfer George Campbell in the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 21 going into the break.
The Mountaineers took a 24-21 lead early in the third quarter on a 23-yard Evan Staley field goal, then after the teams traded empty possessions redshirt junior fullback Logan Thimons burst through a gang of NC State players to block a punt deep in Wolfpack territory. Running back Kennedy McKoy found the end zone three plays later to put the Mountaineers ahead 31-21, and it was time for the WVU defense to shine.
NC State had the ball deep in West Virginia territory twice later in the third quarter — once on the drive following WVU’s last touchdown and the next coming after Kendall threw a bad pass that was intercepted by NC State linebacker Drake Thomas near the West Virginia 20-yard line. Both times the Wolfpack came away with field goals.
“[WVU] did a good job of getting their hands up a few times when we had guys open,” NC State coach Dave Doeren said. “They adjusted. We ran the ball very effectively in the first half into the boundary, and they adjusted. We just couldn’t get it going in the second half.”
West Virginia was still not quite out of the woods Saturday against the Wolfpack. In the fourth quarter, however, the Mountaineers put the game out of reach. McKoy and Kendall did the bulk of the work on the first drive of the fourth quarter with their legs, including a 25-yard run by the quarterback. That set up a touchdown pass from Kendall to true freshman Ali Jennings early in the quarter.
Leddie Brown, the sophomore running back appearing in his first game of the 2019 season, put a bow on the game for West Virginia with all four carries on WVU’s final scoring drive of the game, finishing with a 3-yard touchdown run to make it 44-27.
For the game, Kendall finished 27 of 40 on pass attempts for 272 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. James led all receivers with nine catches for 155 yards and a touchdown, while McKoy led the Mountaineers with 66 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries.
“The guys we need to be big-time players for us were big-time players today,” Brown said. “Guys like Sam James, Kennedy McKoy. Overall, this was a great team win. I talked to our guys and I thought this was a defining moment. You have defining moments sometimes, and this was really early on to be having a defining moment. But whether we won or lost, I thought how was played today was really going to be a defining moment.”
For NC State, quarterback Matt McKay finished 23 of 48 for 207 yards with one touchdown, while freshman running back Zonovan “Bam” Knight carried the ball a team-high 12 times for 72 yards. As a team, West Virginia held the Wolfpack to 369 total yards while rolling up 445 of its own, including a season-high 173 rushing yards.
“How we responded all through the week, that was what was on the field,” Brown said. “Like I said, I’m proud of these guys. Great win.”