MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — College football wouldn’t have reached the ripe old age of 150 years without providing a weekly reminder that it is crazy.
No one would have expected Maryland to be the nation’s most explosive offense for the first two weeks, just as no one would have predicted the Terps to come grinding to a halt at Temple in Week 3.
With the talent West Virginia had returning at running back, few could have predicted the Mountaineers would be last in the nation running the ball through two weeks. And once that had been established, even fewer folks would have tabbed a breakout against one of the two defenses in the country that had yet to surrender a touchdown.
Yet here we are.
After a 44-27 win over North Carolina State, the gloom that hung over West Virginia fans following last week’s humbling at Missouri is gone, replaced by an outlook bright as Saturday’s sunlight at Milan Puskar Stadium.
“This is why I love football,” said West Virginia coach Neal Brown. “It’s not when you get down, but how you respond. I’m so proud of how our staff and players responded.”
The response was evident before the ball was kicked off.
Defensive line coach Jordan Lesley gathered his charges in a huddle, delivering the message they would hear for the next three hours.
“Be dominant,” he told them. “Don’t let up, no matter what the situation is. Losing, winning, up by 2, down by 20. You’ve just got to fight, fight, fight and give the people what they want.”
“The statement I remember vividly is ‘One foot in four seconds,'” said defensive tackle Darius Stills. “Don’t worry about the NFL. Don’t worry about the last week of practice. Don’t worry about the last game. Put one foot in front of you and do your job for the four seconds of that play. Do your job for that four seconds and everything will be taken care of.”
In the first quarter, the West Virginia defense was a little too amped up. Reuben Jones negated a three-and-out with a late hit on the quarterback. Josh Norwood was ejected for targeting. But once the Mountaineers found the right emotional and physical balance, the Wolfpack were no match.
That intensity didn’t let up on either side of the ball despite multiple moments where a letdown could have opened the door for the Wolfpack.
Sam James’ kickoff return to open the second half was a bobbled disaster that had West Virginia starting at its own 5-yard line. Brown got his mind off the mistake immediately, running a sweep to James that went for 7 yards. The Mountaineers marched 89 yards on the drive before taking a 24-21 lead with a field goal.
In the third quarter, Austin Kendall threw what would have been a backbreaking interception for many teams. N.C. State had the ball at the WVU 21-yard line and a chance to tie the game late in the third quarter. The Wolfpack gained 1 yard and settled for a field goal.
“No matter what situation we’re in, we can’t panic,” Stills said. “That puts pressure on everybody else.”
That attitude was shared by Kendall. On the possession following the interception, he led the Mountaineers on a 75-yard touchdown drive that was capped off with a 9-yard strike to true freshman Ali Jennings.
Brown called the performance a “defining moment” for the program.
“Whether we won or lost, how we played today was going to be a defining moment,” Brown said. “What I meant by that is things didn’t go right last week. How we responded during the week, that was what we showed on the field.”
For me, the defining moment of this defining win came well after it was clear West Virginia had the game in the bag.
On Leddie Brown’s 3-yard touchdown run to put WVU up 44-27, the pile never stopped moving and Brown never stopped churning his legs. A few yards away, center Briason Mays was cleaning things up, pancaking N.C. State linebacker C.J. Hart in violent fashion. Hart probably had no chance to make a play. But Mays, a redshirt freshman making his first start, left nothing to chance. He was determined to leave Hart with a tattoo of the Mountaineers end zone.
Moments like that make a difference for a team that will rarely have the most raw talent on the field the rest of this season. Whether they become the norm next week or next year, there’s no doubt they are the types of plays by which Brown will want his program to be defined.