MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The honeymoon ended with 10:35 remaining in the fourth quarter.
After nine months of plaudits, Neal Brown got his first taste of a head coach’s life in the Power Five as a smattering of boos sprinkled down from the upper deck at sold-out Milan Puskar Stadium. More than a few of the 61,891 paid customers expressed their distaste for a conservative run call on third down.
The grumbling was understandable. West Virginia’s ground game was closer to walking than running, averaging 1.4 yards per carry. Even notoriously immobile former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar managed 1.5 yards per carry in his career.
But Brown’s decision was also understandable. There was no need to risk a turnover with Evan Staley in chip-shot range for a go-ahead field goal. Sure enough, Staley nailed the kick, and within two minutes the boo-birds were back to happiness as Keith Washington’s interception and Austin Kendall’s touchdown strike to Tevin Bush suddenly had the Mountaineers up by 10 points.
“I appreciate the sell-out crowd. I thought they were loud,” Brown said of the largest audience to attend a West Virginia opener since the Mountaineers hosted Ohio State in 1998. “They hung in there when it was ugly and I appreciate that. I tried to give them a fair warning.”
He certainly did. From the outset of spring ball to Big 12 media days and into opening week, Brown told fans that patience was needed for this work-in-progress.
Even the best coaches are liable to see a head-scratcher in their first season. The best one of them all, Marion County’s Nick Saban, lost to UAB in his first year at LSU. In Year 1 at Alabama, he repeated the process with a defeat to lowly Louisiana-Monroe. On more than one occasion Saturday, James Madison looked capable of putting a similar mark on Brown’s resume.
But the Dukes didn’t, and that’s largely thanks to Brown and his coaching staff. Just one game into his West Virginia career, Brown picked up a win that the previous regime might not have. The reason? Halftime adjustments.
James Madison controlled both lines of scrimmage to take a 7-3 lead into the locker room. Had the game continued in that fashion, the upset likely would have been sprung.
Instead, the Mountaineers shook things up enough to turn the game on its head, starting with Kendall’s 41-yard connection to Tevin Bush to open the half. Bush wasn’t targeted in the first half.
“The first play of the second half was as big a play as there was in this game,” Brown said.
Vic Koenning’s defense tightened up after the Dukes gashed them up the middle in the first half. After allowing 137 rushing yards in the first half, the Mountaineers limited JMU to 35 yards on the ground in the second.
“Second half, they wanted to do zone-read, so we did our zone-read stuff,” Koenning said. “That’s the advantage of doing a lot of stuff in camp, so you can pull something out of your hat that maybe you weren’t ready to use yet.”
The second-half changes weren’t just schematic. Players say there was also an attitude adjustment — albeit one inspired by Brown.
“We needed to get some fire under our butt. We came out too loose and we needed to tighten up a little bit,” Kendall said. “Coach Brown lit a fire under our ass, basically.”
How did he light that fire?
“I’m sure you could think of whatever,” Kendall said with a grin.
Brown will need a few more proverbial matchboxes and cans of lighter fluid to get through a season where West Virginia will be frequently faced with an experience deficit. But even with multiple visible flaws, the fact he made it through Game 1 intact shouldn’t go unappreciated.
A win is a win. And Brown looks like he’ll have plenty more to go before his time here is done.