— By Alex Hickey
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Last year, Gary Jennings was the butt of well-intentioned jokes in the West Virginia team room.
It’s not that he was unproductive. Far from it. Jennings was one of the nation’s top receivers, snagging 97 catches for 1,097 yards in the process of being named the Mountaineers offensive player of the year.
But despite all that production, he had the darndest time actually crossing the goal line. Jennings finished the season with only one touchdown reception – putting him on par with fullbacks or even the occasional offensive tackle.
“We gave him so much crap last year for having one touchdown,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “He scored 1 percent of the time that he touched the ball. So he’s tired of hearing it.”
On Saturday night against Youngstown State, Jennings proved he was not allergic to the end zone.
Jennings had five career touchdowns before Saturday when he became just the seventh Mountaineer with three touchdown catches in a game.
Holgorsen said he couldn’t explain the previous lack of touchdowns for Jennings, “because he’s a really good player and we focused on that and targeted him more in those situations. It was good to see him get in the end zone.”
Jennings proved himself a short, medium and long threat.
Will Grier zipped him an 11-yard pass for his first score of the game, putting the Mountaineers up 14-0 in the second quarter.
That was followed by a 24-yard strike that capped of a crucial two-minute drill that put West Virginia up 21-7 with 1 minute remaining in the first half.
It didn’t take long after that for Jennings to earn the hat trick, with his 33-yard catch capping off the Mountaineers’ first drive of the second half.
“He’s scoring. He’s fixed whatever it was last year,” said Mountaineers quarterback Will Grier. “He had three times as many touchdowns as he did last year.”
As the Mountaineers’ trigger man, Grier obviously plays an vital role in the distribution of touchdowns. But even he was puzzled by Jennings inability to score considering that he had 36 more catches than any other West Virginia target in 2017.
“It was just weird that he never found the end zone,” Grier said. “It was just a matter of time. I try to throw him the ball as much as I can. And he found the end zone today.”
Few players in the country are finding the end zone more frequently than Jennings in the first two weeks of the season.
His four touchdown catches are tied for third in the country behind Hawaii’s Cedric Byrd and John Ursua, who have had the benefit of playing three games. Among Power 5 programs, only Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy has reached the end zone as frequently as the suddenly sensationally scoring Jennings.
Coincidentally, Jennings’ career night came during a game in which West Virginia ran the ball 46 times and threw it only 29. That was a nod to Youngstown State dropping six and sometimes seven defenders into coverage.
“They were playing like a five-man box, sometimes less,” said Jennings. “And after playing mostly man on film, the majority of what we got tonight was Cover 3 looks and them bailing back.
“It takes patience, so we had to let the running backs do their thing.”