MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When it was announced pregame that West Virginia starting guards Josh Sills and Mike Brown were both out of Saturday’s game against N.C. State, there likely wasn’t much confidence that this would be the week the Mountaineers’ offensive line was going to turn it around.
The most criticized unit during the first two games of the season, the big guys up front offensively struggled in almost every facet in the win Week 1 against James Madison and the Week 2 drubbing at the hands of Missouri. Pass protection wasn’t the main problem, though — it was the Mountaineers’ inability to do anything on the ground.
In two games, WVU had 64 yards rushing. At halftime against the Wolfpack, the Mountaineers had 65, and by game’s end, they finished with 445 yards of total offensive and 44 points.
Down two starters, facing a defense that hadn’t allowed a single touchdown all season, the offensive line had the breakthrough performance West Virginia needed to continue its climb in coach Neal Brown’s first season.
This week, Brown said there was going to be changes across the entire team, and look no further than the offensive line to see the fruits of labor.
“As a coach, you’ve got to keep trying until you find the right mix,” he said. “I think it’s one of those really fun things about coaching, you keep trying. It’s hard to play offensive line. Michael (Brown) was sick all week and didn’t practice, so he couldn’t play. Josh (Sills) was hurt, so he couldn’t play.”
That paved the way for guys like Briason Mays, who earned his first start at center as a redshirt-freshman, James Gmiter, who was playing along the defensive line this time a year ago, and John Hughes, who also made his first start at guard.
Filling in for two missing starters, Gmiter and Hughes stepped up when the team needed them most.
“When I knew that we were going to be down both starting guards … but I never flinched,” offensive coordinator and line coach Matt Moore said. “Those guys never flinched and were excited to play. Gmiter played every snap at the left guard spot and did a good job. John Hughes started as a junior college guy who played a limited number of snaps. I was really proud of the way those kids played and the effort that they gave. I just want them to play hard, be physical, and we’ll live with the results, and I think that’s what we did today.”
Senior tackle Colton McKivitz, who Brown mentioned was a “dude” against the Wolfpack, was relied on to help the young linemen inside, even Mays. McKivitz wanted to make sure the communication was what it needed to be front the center position.
“I didn’t really have to question was Briason was doing,” McKivitz said. “Gmiter and I were doing a good job of getting movement on the left and obviously, Briason, Gmiter and Hughes were doing a good job of getting those guys blocked on the inside. One thing we were lacking was getting on the [linebackers] and just staying on blocks and I think we did a good job of that.”
Now the key is making sure it stays this way. Sills and Brown will be back at some point, so adding them to the rotation, along with guard Chase Behrndt, without missing a beat or messing with chemistry will be important as Big 12 play begins this week at Kansas.
“At this point, we don’t really know who’s going to go in there,” McKivitz said. “Really, we’ve seen what guys can do and that they can play at this level. It’s just stacking it and repeating it every week.”