For the second straight year, WVU will open the football season on the road in a rivalry game.
Last year, that trip resulted in a 30-24 loss at Maryland. This season, coaches and players are obviously hoping for better when the Mountaineers visit Pitt at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 1 at Acrisure Stadium — formerly Heinz Field — in Pittsburgh.
That loss to the Terrapins isn’t quite as distant a memory as one might think. In fact, WVU head coach Neal Brown said it’s affected everything the team has done and is doing this preseason.
“Well, we’ve got to do a better job than last year, right?” Brown said. “It’s hard to play a really good team early. Now, the good thing is, they’re playing their first game too. But we did not perform very well in that Maryland game last year. That was something we really studied going back into January and into the spring, was how we did fall camp.
“Our calendar is different, how we practice is different, how long we go, what time we get kids out of here in the evening, the number of off days — all that kind of stuff. We’ve changed almost a 180 about how we approach camp with [this] in mind, being as good as we can possibly be on that Thursday night in Pittsburgh.
“Now, you’re not going to know how it all pays off until you play. But we didn’t win the [Maryland] game and you turn the ball over four times, but we just didn’t play very well.
“We didn’t look like ourselves defensively. Offensively, our reactions weren’t very good. I didn’t think whatever we did last year leading up to that game was good enough.
“Rather than try to do the same thing over and over again because we’ve got a rivalry game again, we went out and studied the best and how they play early and how they do it and we’ve taken some of those things and changed.”
A SONG IN THEIR HEARTS: While that Maryland game is being used as a learning tool, all attention is pointed toward the Panthers.
It can be seen and felt at each practice, and from the beginning, it can be heard. Over the loudspeakers, as a matter of fact.
Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” is the first song that plays as the team takes to the practice field, a song that has become special to the West Virginia fan base thanks to a few added lyrics derisively pointed at Pitt. The relationship between Mountaineer fans and the Diamond classic was made famous by a YouTube video from ESPN’s “College GameDay” set in Morgantown as fans screamed the additional lyrics during a commercial break.
When asked about the song and its placement in the team’s daily routine, Brown cracked a sly smile.
“We’re just trying to get them ready for the atmosphere, and when you have rivalries, some of it’s fun too,” Brown said. “If you remember going back to spring ball, we played that and we did it all summer and when we started practice, they were still playing it. It’s fun.”
O-LINE COMING ALONG: With five returning starters along the offensive line, expectations are high for a unit that has largely struggled during Brown’s tenure.
Thursday’s scrimmage, the first of the preseason, gave Brown and WVU coaches a first glimpse of the unit in action, and like everywhere else, there were positive and negative takeaways.
“I don’t know if you ever feel completely like you’ve arrived there, just because if you look at the people we’ve got to play, especially early in the year, man, we’ve got some really stout defensive lines we’re going to have to play,” Brown said. “So I really like our communication. We’re on the right people for the most part and we do a lot of things defensively and we always feel like if we can get on the right people versus our guys then we’ve got a chance versus anybody we’re going to play. So, I’m pleased with that.
“I think we’ve got to be able to sustain our pass [protection] a little bit longer. That’s something I think we’ve got to work on. And we’ve just got to get reps in short yardage and goal line. It’s not that we’ve been poor at it, we just haven’t had as many reps. We’ve got a window here between now and next Thursday where we’ve got to get those reps and you don’t really want to have so many big bodies in close quarters after that.”
TACKLE COMPETITION: Though all five starters are back up front, one — right tackle Brandon Yates — is in a competition for this year’s starting job, with Ja’Quay Hubbard impressing throughout spring and into preseason camp.
Brown said the competition has brought out the best in Yates lately.
“I think that Brandon Yates has come on,” Brown said. “It’s hard to judge today until I watch it [on film] but the two previous days he’s been much improved. I think he feels more healthy, so, that’s been good to see.”