MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Following nearly nine months of anticipation, the big moment is finally here.
The Neal Brown era of West Virginia football will be born at 2 p.m. Saturday when the Mountaineers play host to James Madison, which enters the season as the second-ranked team in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“The anticipation of playing, that feeling doesn’t go away,” said senior offensive tackle Colton McKivitz, who is moving from the right side to the left this season. “You get halfway through camp and it’s like ‘Get the season here.’”
Brown was hired from Troy in January to replace Dana Holgorsen, who jumped ship for Houston after eight years at the Mountaineers’ helm.
Brown’s arrival has been hailed as a salve among a fanbase that has endured multiple fractures since WVU’s 2007 loss to Pitt and Rich Rodriguez’s subsequent departure for Michigan. The chaos that swirled around the promotions of Bill Stewart and then Holgorsen has been replaced by the reviving energy of a fresh, 39-year-old family man’s face.
Brown shares in the excitement that has steadily increased during an offseason of doing things that have endeared him to the fanbase, from speaking engagements to bringing the team to visit a coal mine.
“If you don’t have butterflies, and not just because it’s my first game here – if you don’t have that every game, you’ve maybe lost some edge,” Brown said. “That’s perfectly normal to have butterflies. You just have to control your emotions.”
Even with emotions kept properly in check, the first game of the season provides a unique set of challenges.
“There’s always some surprises,” Brown said. “We’re gonna be excited to play. I don’t think effort’s going to be an issue. It’s handling things that aren’t exactly the same as we showed them in practice. Those are the things we’ve got to find out.”
In terms of experience, the Mountaineers are no match for the visiting Dukes.
On offense, West Virginia only returns three starters from last season. Two of them – McKivitz and guard-turned-center Josh Sills – are playing different positions.
Defensively, West Virginia has to replace both Big 12 defensive player of the year David Long and all-Big 12 safety Kenny Robinson. Four starters return on that side of the ball.
James Madison’s players are closer to their master’s degrees than their high school diplomas. The Dukes return 20 starters. Defensively, every starter has at least three years of college experience. Nine of those players are either redshirt juniors, seniors or redshirt seniors.
JMU’s offense isn’t exactly wet behind the ears, bringing back the majority of a group that averaged 34 points per game a year ago.
The biggest unknown for James Madison is its new coaching staff. Dukes coach Curt Cignetti actually has more history in Morgantown than he does in his new home of Harrisonburg, Va. The Morgantown High and WVU graduate is a former Mountaineer player and the son of ex-WVU offensive coordinator and head coach Frank Cignetti, who worked at the school from 1970-79.
WVU offensive line vs. JMU defensive line: West Virginia’s three new starters will be challenged by James Madison’s talented defensive front. Ron’Dell Carter (6-3, 269 pounds) and John Daka (6-2, 227) bring very different looks, but both are preseason FCS all-Americans.
WVU receivers vs. JMU secondary: T.J. Simmons’ 28 career receptions lead West Virginia against a secondary featuring three all-conference players, including potential FCS defensive player of the year Rashad Robinson at cornerback. Tight end Mike O’Laughlin and West Virginia’s running backs may be forced to make the difference in the passing game.
Special teams: Nearly every close game – as this one should be – has one or two important special teams moments. The Mountaineers will want to keep the ball away from Amos, who returned three punts for touchdowns last season.