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NCAA Football: Eastern Kentucky at West Virginia

The crowd was sparse for the West Virginia University football team’s home opener against Eastern Kentucky. COVID-19 restrictions kept no one but family of players and staff from attending.

It certainly was an odd sight to see a largely vacant Milan Puskar Stadium during a West Virginia home game.

Coach Neal Brown mentioned just how odd it was after the Mountaineers’ 56-10 conquest of Football Championship Subdivision foe Eastern Kentucky.

“Also missed our fans today,” Brown said. “Kind of surreal. I hope they felt like they were part of it at home, I haven’t watched the TV copy but I hope it was quality and they enjoyed it at home.”

But as for the players? To some, it didn’t make that much of a difference.

Quarterback Jarret Doege is a transfer from Bowling Green, a member of the Mid-American Conference (MAC). He said the mostly empty stands and – with the exception of some light crowd noise being pumped through the stadium speakers – quiet environment was nothing new.

“I played in Bowling Green in the ‘MACtion’ on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and my family was the only people in the stands at the time, so it’s nothing new to me,” Doege said. “I could hear my mom scream [on Saturday] and you could see her in the stands. Usually I can’t find her, but you could see her sitting front row.”

Safety Alonzo Addae could relate, having transferred in from FCS New Hampshire in 2019 before sitting out last season and making his debut on Saturday. But more importantly than past experience playing in front of a depleted crowd, Addae said that his desire to be on the field trumped the absence of people in the stands.

“Honestly, it was no different for me, just because of the love for the game,” Addae said. “That’s one thing that me and my teammates all share is just a true passion for football. Obviously, it does suck not to have the environment and atmosphere of all the fans here, but regardless we’re still suiting up and representing West Virginia as a state and we want to do that proudly.”

•••

While there were certainly plenty of positives to take away from WVU’s performance on Saturday, there were some negatives as well.

Brown pointed to general improvement needed on special teams and also listed discipline and general sharpness as needs moving forward.

“It was a good first win overall, glad to get a game under our belt,” Brown said during the Big 12 coaches conference call on Monday. “Our discipline and attention to detail must improve once we get into league play.”

While he didn’t get into the specifics of that on Monday, on Saturday, Brown referenced a couple of unnecessary penalties that would be dealt with during this week of practice. Overall, the Mountaineers were flagged eight times for 85 yards, but that could’ve been much worse if not for numerous offsetting fouls that canceled penalties out.

“Too many penalties, that’s the thing that sticks out,” Brown said. “A lot of them are on special teams, several block-in-the-backs or holding. Two after-the-whistle penalties, which we will pay for those – we’re not in the business of getting selfish penalties. But a lot of it, punt return, kick return, full-speed work, we need to do more full-speed work, I think that was evident.”

•••

While several youngsters were thrust into the starting lineup on Saturday due to a wave of 11 one-game suspensions issued by Brown before the game, things went fairly smoothly. That included two true freshmen wideouts in Sam Brown and Reese Smith as well as true freshman center Zach Frazier.

All three performed well and for some of the team’s elder statesmen, including Doege, it could solidify those players in big situations moving forward.

“[Smith and Brown] are guys that both had a really good camp,” Doege said. “Guys that came in, stepped in and they’re in the rotation because of it and they’re guys I’ll continue to go to throughout the season.

“Hats off to Zach and [lineman] Brandon Yates, both young guys getting their first start and I think they did a great job [Saturday]. I think the whole O-line, testament to them for allowing us to have a really good run game [Saturday] and pass game too. I don’t think I had a finger laid on me and we’ll keep that up.”

•••

Starting right guard Mike Brown went down with an apparent leg injury early in the second half on Saturday. On Monday, Neal Brown said that the lineman should be fine moving forward.

•••

West Virginia’s next game, at Oklahoma State on Sept. 26, is set for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff and will be televised by either ABC or ESPN. That announcement came Monday with a final decision on network to come after this week’s slate of contests.

Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, ryan.pritt@wvgazettemail.com or follow him @RPritt on Twitter.