West Virginia University head coach Neal Brown came into Saturday’s season opener against Eastern Kentucky with something of a unique plan — and of course the pandemic was the driving reason behind it.
While the second-year Mountaineer head coach was quick to emphasize that he treated the contest as a regular opening game, it was also part of a build-up process toward the opening of Big 12 play on Sept. 26. That involved both game-planning and conditioning.
“Just because of the calendar, we treated this like a first game, but tried to set it up with the 26th as the point where we are ready physically and football-wise,” Brown explained.
The lack of on-campus, in-person conditioning for much of the summer, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, contributed to the altered plan. Brown, like many coaches in the game, noted that it was difficult to get players into game-ready football shape with the modified schedule.
“Just from a staff standpoint, we have tried to build toward that date,” he detailed. “This week will be kind of a mix between a normal bye week and camp style sessions. We plan to go four sessions this week, and go against each other a lot.”
Next week, attention will turn to Oklahoma State, WVU’s foe in the scheduled league opener. The Cowboys didn’t play last Saturday, but will play Tulsa this Saturday in a contest that was pushed back seven days due to a lack of preseason practice for the Golden Hurricane. The Mountaineers have the open date.
West Virginia’s Sept. 26 game against Oklahoma State in Stillwater is slated for 3:30 p.m. and will be televised by ABC or ESPN.
“I don’t think it’s an advantage either way, just because we played each other late last season,” Brown said of any plus or minus in playing or not playing this week. “Schematically, I don’t think either side will make a whole bunch of changes from what we did last year.”
A second goal of the Eastern Kentucky game was to run a number of different sets and plays in order to evaluate their effectiveness and find out if the results from practice sessions matched up to those that came under game conditions. That work leaned more heavily on one side of the ball.
“We ran a lot of plays, I think it was 86, and we made 90 calls,” Brown said. “We called everything we planned to. We were pretty simple, but a lot of that was due to it being the first game and some due to our youth.
“On defense we didn’t have as many calls. I think we had 49 countable snaps. We didn’t want to show a lot there, and we kept it simple.”
Game operations are always a concern in the first week of the season, even though mock contests and walkthroughs, extending to the point of riding the team buses to the stadium and mimicking every aspect of a normal game day, are executed to try to identify any bugs.
With WVU breaking in new faces at both coordinator positions, that was a point to watch in Saturday’s game, and Brown noted everything went well, especially on the defensive side, where co-coordinators Jordan Lesley and Jahmile Addae were working with three new assistants (Dontae Wright, Jeff Casteel, Jeff Koonz) for the first time in a game.
“The coaches have been professionals about it the whole time,” Brown said of his staff. “They made the kids the No. 1 priority, as we asked. We want to be a players-first program. There were things we have to do better, like tackle better, and we misfit some things, but their communication was good.”
“It was a great way to start the season,” Brown summarized. “We ran the ball better, the offensive line, the running backs and the tight ends were all much better and the communication was good. We had several explosive plays, and on defense we were really good on third down [EKU converted just one of 11 third-down plays].
“But our discipline and attention to detail must improve as we get into league play.”
WVU had at least seven plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or more, while Eastern Kentucky had four.