MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Somehow, the West Virginia’s first season under Neal Brown is already one-third of the way to the finish line.
So far the Mountaineers are earning a passing grade. West Virginia (3-1) only needs three more wins to become bowl eligible, which is all anyone could ask for with a young team and a first-year head coach in what appears to be a more loaded Big 12 than usual.
However, there are no open-book exams the rest of the way. The eight teams remaining on West Virginia’s schedule are a combined 25-8 (.757 winning percentage). If WVU does reach the postseason, it will have certainly been earned.
Here’s a look at where the Mountaineers grade out so far, and what will need to happen if they are to play to a 13th game.
West Virginia has rebounded from a less-than-ideal start to the season, particularly running the ball.
The Mountaineers are averaging a pedestrian 3.25 yards per carry, but it’s a marked improvement from the 1.1 ypc they were averaging through the first two games. At Kansas, WVU dominated time of possession by 15 minutes thanks to how well it controlled the line of scrimmage.
The pass game has been adequate, but far from jaw-dropping. The Mountaineers are seventh in the Big 12 with 218 yards per game and eighth with six touchdown passes.
Brown has made it known that WVU needs to have more explosive plays the rest of the year. Right now the Mountaineers are last in the Big 12 with nine completions of at least 20 yards. Improved pass protection would help on that end. Only TCU has allowed more sacks among Big 12 teams.
Vic Koenning’s defense has played a solid half of football in each of its four games, but has yet to string together a complete 60 minutes of suffocation.
The Mountaineers have been effective getting to the quarterback, rating second in the Big 12 with 11 sacks. That’s an impressive figure considering how little they’ve gotten out of the bandit, which is a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end meant to be the primary pass rusher. The return of VanDarius Cowan from a four-game suspension should help that effort.
West Virginia rates in the middle of the pack in the league against both the pass and the run. The Mountaineers are fifth in takeaways, as well.
SPECIAL TEAMS (A)
What a revelation the Mountaineers have been on special teams.
West Virginia blocked a field goal against James Madison and a punt against North Carolina State, moments that both changed momentum and turned up the home crowd in eventual wins.
Other than allowing N.C. State to convert a fake punt, West Virginia has also prevented opponents from big plays on special teams. Though aided by a penalty as he attempted to field the ball, Dante Bonamico clearly wasn’t caught off-guard by Kansas’ sneak onside kick attempt.
The Mountaineers have narrowly missed some chances to really pin opponents by downing Josh Growden punts inside the 5, but that figures to happen sooner than later as the coverage unit gets more time in with the late arrival from LSU.
Looking at the preseason schedule, 3-1 felt like the best-case scenario, and that’s precisely where the Mountaineers find themselves. But the way Brown and his coaching staff have made it happen is what stands out.
The adjustments made to get the run game on track have been impressive. It starts with the rebuild up front with three new interior linemen – left guard James Gmiter, center Briason Mays and right guard Chase Behrndt. In training camp, Behrndt was pegged to be the starting center and the other two weren’t even on anyone’s radar.
Like everyone else, the coaches have their work cut out moving ahead. Heavyweights like Lincoln Riley and Gary Patterson loom ahead, as do talented up-and-comers like Matt Campbell and Matt Rhule.
The Neal Brown era is unquestionably off to a good start, but the next two months will show what his first group of Mountaineers are really made of.