MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s biggest offensive void is a secret to no one.
“If this West Virginia offense has any weaknesses,” ESPN play-by-play man Anish Schroff noted early in Saturday’s telecast, “It’s the interior of the offensive line.”
More specifically, right guard is the position the Mountaineers need to turn from a snow fence to a wall as they try to keep their Big 12 title aspirations on track.
The situation has been deemed dire enough that West Virginia is willing to junk its initial plan to redshirt senior Isaiah Hardy this season. Hardy earned the start against Kansas over redshirt sophomore Chase Behrndt, who had started in place of Joe Brown the previous three games.
Hardy is allowed to play in four games this season and remain eligible for next year. He’s at three. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen expects to get Week 1 starter Joe Brown back for this week’s game at Iowa State, but if playing Hardy now gives his team the best chance to win now, that’s what he’s going to do.
“If Isaiah Hardy is our best right guard, we’re going to play Isaiah Hardy. He’s going to be a senior for us this year. If Joe Brown is our best guard, then he needs to come back healthy,” Holgorsen said. “He’d be our guy for as long as he can be. If we can save Isaiah, we will. It’s a week-to-week discussion.”
Hardy was originally tabbed to back up Brown, but was knocked on his backside on his only snap against Tennessee, setting up a Keystone Kops sequence that forced quarterback Will Grier to weave all sorts of different directions to avoid danger. After that game, the coaching staff decided to give Hardy another year to work into the position if possible.
“I think Tennessee wasn’t the greatest snap for him,” said right tackle Colton McKivitz. “He definitely learned what’s expected at that position.”
Both Brown and Behrndt played right guard against Tennessee, with Behrndt earning the start against Youngstown State. Brown missed the Texas Tech game with an injury, forcing Hardy to serve as the backup on that trip. And due to Behrndt’s poor performance against the Red Raiders, Hardy unexpectedly made his way onto the field.
“Hardy’s 20 snaps looked a lot better than Chase’s 60 snaps,” Holgorsen said. “So, we decided to go with Hardy [against KU].”
Hardy’s play against Kansas was up-and-down, but contained glimmers of hope.
It began inauspiciously. The combination of a low Matt Jones snap and Hardy whiffing on his assignment left Will Grier dead to rights on West Virginia’s second play of the game. It was the first of two Kansas tackles for loss that could be pegged on Hardy.
Hardy was also flagged twice. The first, a false start, pushed West Virginia back on a second-and-goal situation. Fortunately for WVU, it just padded Grier’s stats, allowing for a 15-yard touchdown pass to Leddie Brown.
The second penalty got Hardy temporarily benched. He was badly beaten by KU defensive tackle Codey Cole, leaving him no choice but to hold on to Cole in order to keep Grier upright. Notably, offensive line coach Joe Wickline elected to replace him with backup center Jacob Buccigrossi instead of Behrndt.
Much like Hardy, it was a rude introduction for Buccigrossi. On his first play, a stunting blitzer sneaked through unblocked, sacking Grier and forcing a fumble the Jayhawks recovered.
“Coming off the field after that, Jacob said he’s used to locking on to guys at center,” McKivitz said. “But I told him guard’s a whole different ballgame, and sometimes you have to punch a guy away.”
The upside of Hardy’s effort was seen on tape. His physicality showed with at least six pancake blocks. There were also no less than two instances where he fended off two Jayhawk defenders on his own.
Whether it’s Hardy, Brown, Buccigrossi or Behrndt working his way back from the bench, it is crucial for West Virginia that someone provide consistency at the position in the second half of the season.
“We still have some issues at the right guard position. We have to get better at it,” said offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. “We’ve got to get all 11 on the same page, because we’ve got a lot of guys playing at a high level.”