Brown hopeful secondary finds a spark from ‘promotions and demotions’

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s first two games of the 2023 season were perhaps the easiest to project based on opponent.

A 23-point season-opening loss at seventh-ranked Penn State didn’t come as a surprise, nor did the 56-17 lightning-delayed win over FCS foe Duquesne in last Saturday’s home opener.

Still, as the Mountaineers prepare for the 106th rendition of the Backyard Brawl, which comes at 7:30 p.m. Saturday when they welcome Pitt to Milan Puskar Stadium, they do so with a strong understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. That wasn’t the case a year ago when West Virginia and the Panthers met Thursday of Week 1 at Acrisure Stadium.

“From a coaching perspective, you like to get some games under your belt before what you play what your fans see as your most important game,” fifth-year WVU head coach Neal Brown said. ”I could argue it both ways. We know a lot more about our team now than we did going into Week 1 last year.”

Based on what the Mountaineers have displayed, West Virginia’s pass defense is the area in most need of improvement.

The Mountaineers have allowed nearly 9.1 yards per pass attempt through two weeks, surrendering 563 yards through the air against the Nittany Lions and Dukes. 

West Virginia is outside the top 100 nationally having allowed 10 pass plays of 20-plus yards and five of 30-plus yards.

“It’s really a few guys that are playing with bad fundamentals whether it’s not getting their hands on receivers on zone drops or not looking at the quarterback when they should be looking at the quarterback, but we have to get better,” Brown said. “That’s only going to continue to get exposed as move through the season unless we get that fixed.”

In his first career start, Penn State quarterback Drew Allar completed 21-of-29 passes for 325 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. There was expected improvement against Duquesne, though Dukes’ signal-caller Darius Perrantes still threw for 220 yards and a pair of scores among 14 completions on 31 attempts.

DJ Powell’s 38-yard touchdown reception marked the game’s first points and fellow Dukes’ wideout Tedy Afful made receptions of 45 and 16 yards in the second half, the latter of which produced Duquesne’s other TD.

Sep 9, 2023; Morgantown, West Virginia, USA; Duquesne Dukes wide receiver Darryl Powell Jr. (4) catches a pass for a touchdown during the first quarter against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Powell’s touchdown came while working against cornerback Andrew Wilson-Lamp, who earned the start opposite Beanie Bishop. Bishop’s second-quarter interception with the game tied at 7 against Duquesne was WVU’s first this season, and reserve safety Avery Wilcox added a second in the fourth quarter.

After Powell’s touchdown grab, Malachi Ruffin played extensively in place of Wilson-Lamp. Ruffin’s 47 plays were a team-high among cornerbacks and Bishop followed with 44. Jacolby Spells was utilized on 16 defensive snaps and Wilson-Lamp 12.

The Mountaineers got a brief look at twin brothers and true freshmen Jordan Jackson and Josiah Jackson, while Kent State transfer Montre Miller missed the matchup with the Dukes after suffering an injury in the season opener. His return is not imminent and not assured to occur later this season, leaving it up to Bishop, Ruffin, Wilson-Lamp and Spells as the key cogs at cornerback.

“This past week, we gave up 200-something yards and the week before, gave up a lot of passing yards,” Bishop said. “Just improving every aspect of coverage, being able to tackle and get the ball down.”

The likely return of safety Marcis Floyd should bolster that position group, which has otherwise relied heavily on Aubrey Burks and first-year transfers Anthony Wilson and Keyshawn Cobb.

“There’s going to be some playing time and decisions made where we have two games on film where some people have not performed as well and their playing time will decrease,” Brown said. “Hopefully Marcis Floyd is back this week. He practiced [Monday] and hopefully he’ll look good [Tuesday]. He’s played a lot and should help us back there. There’s going to be some promotions and demotions and a decrease in snaps for some people.”

Still, wholesale changes aren’t coming and Brown admits the secondary could use more bodies.

“They’re not getting fired. Some snaps are going to get decreased,” he said. “Our numbers are not as good as you would like. We’ve have some evaluation mistakes at that area. But I really feel like our personnel, while it’s not perfect, is better than we’ve performed. Schematically there’s a couple things that we can do, and we knew after the Penn State game, we just didn’t in the Duquesne game, because we didn’t want to put it on film. But we practiced them all week and we’ll work on it this week. Hopefully that makes a difference.”

Pitt is coming off a lethargic passing performance in its 27-21 loss to Cincinnati. Panthers’ quarterback Phil Jurkovec threw three touchdowns, but completed only 10-of-32 passes. 

Jurkovec began his college career at Notre Dame and spent three seasons at Boston College before returning to his hometown for his final season.

He will look to bounce back in Morgantown against a secondary that too often has allowed free runners and would like nothing more than to up its level of play starting in Week 3. 

“Secondary wise, here’s the bottom line — I’ll take all the darts people want to throw at me,” WVU defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley said. “That’s fine. I’m a big boy. But plain and simple, we have a few guys that have to play better and that’s what it is. I’m not saying anything that I haven’t said to them in a group setting or individually. They know what the consequences are. There’s going to be some demotions and promotions and that’s as simple as I can make it. We can talk about corrections all we want to or cleanups. We have a couple guys that have to play better. That’s it.” 

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