Welcome to the inaugural Hickey Awards.
These very made-up awards that feature no trophies will be presented at the conclusion of each West Virginia football season by yours truly. It’s a way to look back at the highs and heartbreaks of the regular season, as well as some lighter moments that happened along the way. More importantly, it’s a good way to kill time in December.
So without further ado, here are the Hickeys. (All winners encouraged to wear turtlenecks tomorrow).
Best player, offense
When you spend most of the season in the Heisman conversation, this is a bit of a no-brainer. Grier is second in the nation in passing yards per game (351.3) and touchdowns (37). He will likely be WVU’s highest Heisman finisher since Steve Slaton in 2006. Which makes sense, as he’s a player most programs are lucky to get once every 10 years or so.
Best player, defense
The first WVU defensive player to be named conference player of the year since 1996. Long has a nose for the ball that makes up for being undersized as a linebacker. His style is so unique that the only comparable player Long could think of is current Tampa Bay Buccaneer and Pro Bowler Kwon Alexander. Having seen Alexander at LSU, I can say that Long is right.
Best player in a supporting role, offense
Pro scouts love David Sills, and I get why. There’s a ton of potential to unleash in a guy who has only played receiver in earnest for two seasons. They’re also high on left tackle Yodny Cajuste, who may well be the first Mountaineer drafted this year.
But I’m still taking Jennings. He caught 74 percent of the passes thrown to him – a higher rate than any of the three Biletnikoff Award finalists. On the biggest throw of the season at Texas, he was the guy Grier went to. And he ended his home career with a bang, racking up 225 yards against Oklahoma on just seven catches.
Best player in a supporting role, defense
A safety for the first two years of his career – and as recently as this spring – Stewart was forced to step up and become an outside linebacker when the Mountaineers lost Quondarius Qualls to a season-ending injury.
A 5-foot-8, 191-pound linebacker. Linebackers aren’t even that small in Division II.
Stewart still balled out with 40.5 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 run stuffs. If Long elects to enter the NFL Draft, Stewart is West Virginia’s best returning defender.
Top breakthrough player
Wesco wasn’t even on the Canadian Football League radar going into his senior season with a whopping two catches for 7 yards.
Now he looks like a potential Day 3 steal in the NFL Draft with the potential to go even higher with an impressive showing at the scouting combine. He heads into the Camping World Bowl with 24 catches for 352 yards this year.
Wesco’s continually evolving role in the passing game was perhaps the most enjoyable individual storyline to follow this season, and gave hope that tight ends will continue to be utilized in a more diversified Mountaineer offense.
Freshman of the year
Brown was easily the most relied-upon freshman contributor for West Virginia this season, though Dante and Darius Stills showed potential on the other side of the ball.
Brown averaged 5 yards per carry and works well as a bruising back that can be used to complement shiftier backfield options.
Newcomer of the year
Bigelow was named second team all-conference in his lone season as a Mountaineer. The USC graduate transfer provided depth on a defensive line that was notoriously thin the past several seasons.
Best halftime ceremony, incoming division
Two former Texas Tech band members tied the knot at midfield during halftime of the West Virginia-Texas Tech game. Mascot Raider Red walked the bride down the makeshift aisle.
Best halftime ceremony, outgoing division
Bullet III, who has served as Oklahoma State’s horse mascot since 2005, was officially retired at halftime of the OSU-West Virginia game – thankfully, not in the same manner horses are retired if they break a leg.
Best celebrity appearance
I’M WITH BUSEY pic.twitter.com/Vd00rnIlb6
— Alex Hickey (@bigahickey) November 17, 2018
Oklahoma State alum Gary Busey was recognized on the field at the end of the first quarter of the OSU-WVU game. Outside of Matthew McConaughey riding Bevo to midfield while sipping on Wild Turkey, no Big 12 school can outdo a shouting Gary Busey for entertainment quality of a celebrity appearance.
Best throw and catch
Grier’s 36-yard rainbow to Jennings in the back of the end zone with 16 seconds left at Texas.
Martell Pettaway’s 55-yard touchdown at Texas. Pettaway broke two Longhorn initial tackles before rumbling downfield, then pulled away from another near the goal line to put the finishing touch on the most entertaining carry of the season.
It wasn’t even a tackle, but Toyous Avery’s bone-rattling quarterback pressure that sent Tennessee quarterback Jarett Guarantano set the tone for the way West Virginia’s defense played for the majority of the season.
Wesco’s punishing block on TCU defensive end L.J. Collier ultimately didn’t matter since Grier had to throw the ball away on a well-covered play by the Horned Frogs.
But it’s still cool to watch over and over.
Best play of the year
Grier’s two-point conversion run for the win at Texas – the best play in one of the five best games played in college football this season. The beauty of it was that Grier was the fourth option on the play and it still worked.
Worst play of the year
A communication failure from the sideline to the field set up a play that may haunt West Virginia for years.
Up 10 points early in the fourth quarter at Oklahoma State, the Mountaineers had the Cowboys facing a third-and-20 near midfield. But Tyron Johnson was able to slip by the defense uncovered after the 10-yard mark, easily hauling in a 38-yard catch.
The Cowboys went on to score a touchdown on third-and-13, turning a sure punt and then a sure field goal into 7 points before eventually completing their comeback.
Most underrated play of the year
It will be lost in the cracks because it came in a losing effort, but Grier’s pass to Jennings in West Virginia’s near-comeback in the final 42 seconds at OSU was every bit as beautiful as their touchdown pitch-and-catch at Texas.
Blooper of the year
There was a little bit of everything in the Texas game, including the season’s funniest moment.
In the midst of West Virginia’s frantic two-minute drill, Texas defensive back Anthony Cook’s cleat somehow got stuck in Mountaineer offensive lineman Josh Sills’ facemask. Both players desperately wanted out of the situation they were in, as Cook hopped around trying to free himself while Sills shook his head around like a wet dog trying to get dry in hopes of releasing Cook.
Best overall performance
47-10 win over TCU
It was the most lopsided loss of Gary Patterson’s 18-year TCU tenure. West Virginia dominated in all three phases, particularly on defense. The Mountaineers put together their best showing since 2010, limiting TCU to minus-7 rushing yards.
Worst overall performance
30-14 loss at Iowa State
The only true stinker on the schedule. Dana Holgorsen called it the worst offensive performance he had seen in 30 years of coaching, and the numbers backed it up.
152 yards of offense. Nine first downs. 42 offensive snaps.
Considering that the Mountaineers were never held under 40 points for the remainder of the season, the result was an all-time headscratcher. Yet if you saw it in person, everything about it made sense. The Cyclones were simply on fire all night.
Best overall moment
That’s a happy locker room, folks. pic.twitter.com/mkyeOyYK8D
— Alex Hickey (@bigahickey) November 3, 2018
The enthusiastic celebration of the Texas win, from the field all the way to the locker room, was filled with the pure excitement that makes college football great. There’s something special about how a team bonds after an improbable road, and it was on full display in Austin – a few dozen happy voices drowning out tens of thousands of silent ones.
Worst overall moment
Oklahoma linebacker Curtis Bolton’s 48-yard touchdown return for a touchdown that took all the air out of Milan Puskar Stadium.
Just moments before, fans were incensed by a controversial penalty call that wiped out a long run that would have given West Virginia a first down inside the 3-yard-line with a chance to take the lead early in the fourth quarter. That mood turned to shock when Grier was hit just before getting his arm forward for a pass attempt, the ball hanging in the air, hitting the ground and then zig-zagging around the turf for what seemed an eternity.
There were four Mountaineers with a realistic chance at getting the ball before Bolton, but it kept bouncing away until it was perfectly in his grasp for a scoop-and-score.
It remains the definitive moment of West Virginia’s 2018 football season – one so close to greatness that will ultimately be defined by disappointment.