Mountaineers Close Their Season on a High Note
After a week of light practices and team-building activities, the Mountaineers faced off against the TCU Horned Frogs on Black Friday. For the Mountaineers, the game represented the chance to end the season well. For TCU, the game represented a must-win to reach bowl eligibility. As has generally been the case between these two teams, the game came down to the final two minutes. This time, West Virginia was able to close out and hold onto a 20-17 win. With that, the Mountaineers close their season on a high note.
On TCU’s first drive, the defense forced a turnover on an interception by Tykee Smith. And the Mountaineers converted that into seven points. After both teams exchanged punts, however, TCU answered to knot the game at seven. On the next drive, Jarret Doege threw his first interception as West Virginia’s starter. But TCU was unable to capitalize.
Indeed, after the first touchdown exchange by these teams, neither was able to generate much offense. Both teams stalled drives by broken plays and penalties. As a result, the Mountaineers and Horned Frogs traded field goals in the second quarter. West Virginia had a chance to close the half with momentum. Doege, however, threw his second interception of the game on a deep ball he left hanging for Sam James. That closed the half with the teams tied at ten. TCU racked up 188 yards, while the Mountaineers produced just 101.
West Virginia opened the second half with a third interception by Doege. The defense held on the next drive, despite good field position for the Horned Frogs. The Mountaineers could not generate offense on the ensuing drive. Jalen Reagor returned Josh Growden’s punt for a touchdown, however. As a result, TCU took a 17-10 lead five minutes into the third quarter.
Then, with TCU driving late in the third, Sean Mahone picked off a deflected pass to the middle of the field. The Mountaineers took over in their own territory. Kennedy McKoy took advantage of an off-balance Horned Frogs defense by popping off a 36-yard run to start the drive. Unfortunately, the Mountaineers stalled in the red zone, as has often been the case this season. West Virginia settled for a field goal to close the gap to 17-13 nearing the end of the third quarter.
The fourth quarter ended with a controversial first-down call in favor of TCU. But the Mountaineers dialed up a sack on the next play, and the defense held strong. On the following drive, however, the offensive line jumped early on a critical fourth-and-one play, forcing West Virginia to punt. On the last punt of his career, graduate transfer Growden pinned the Horned Frogs at the 1 yard line.
After a defensive hold and good starting position, the Mountaineers benefited from a couple of 3rd down missteps by TCU. On the second play, TCU’s Ross Blacklock was called for targeting Jarret Doege. The Horned Frogs had already gotten away with one such hit earlier in the game. Two plays later, Doege hit Isaiah Esdale on a well-thrown ball for a touchdown. And the Mountaineers took the lead 20-17 with just over two minutes to go.
With just over a minute left, TCU faced a fourth-and-ten situation. And true freshman Nicktroy Fortune covered Al’Dontre Davis solidly to force a deep incompletion. As a result, the Mountaineers took the ball back at the TCU 33 yard line. TCU burned all three time-outs on the next drive, but TCU took over with 46 seconds left at their own 31. And, this time, in a 4th-and-15 situation, West Virginia dialed up pressure, Darius Stills forced a throwaway pass, and the Mountaineers held on for the win.
For the Mountaineers, they’d had their share of games decided by a handful of plays. As we wrote last week, at least three, and possibly four, losses were decided by a total of a half dozen plays. This time, the Mountaineers found themselves on the right side of the break. As a result, the Mountaineers close their season on a high note. Absent a surprise bowl invitation, which remains highly unlikely, the first stage of Neal Brown’s climb is complete.
In our season preview articles, we predicted Vic Koenning would field a much improved defense. We overshot our target a bit, as we looked for a top-30 unit. Over its last five games, however, the defense averaged only 22 points surrendered. This figure is stout. They held opposing offenses to 10 points below their season averages during that span. Koenning’s unit also performed well, despite mounting injuries across the entire unit and some unanticipated in-season attrition. And, carried over the length of a season, this average would find the Mountaineers at 28th in the nation in this category. Considering the Mountaineers return over 70% of their production next season, the Mountaineers have much to look forward to in Brown and Koenning’s second year.
Unfortunately, the Mountaineers’ inability to run and move the ball continued. West Virginia will look to improve its offensive line and running game in the offseason. However, even with just modest improvement on offense, West Virginia’s defense should keep them well within striking distance in all but a one or two games next season. So the climb, which was always a multi-year project, remains very real. And, as Brown said prior to this season (as we reported here), it is not a matter of whether the Mountaineers will be great. Instead, it is a matter of when. Brown reaffirmed that this week when he told the media that the Mountaineers are building a winning program. If his tenure at Troy tells us anything, we should take that promise seriously.