Mountaineers Hit the Ground Running
The Mountaineers officially opened their 2020 season with a comfortable 56-10 win over the Eastern Kentucky Colonels. In his final press conference before the season opener, when asked whether he expected his run game to show improvement, Head Coach Neal Brown answered bluntly, “We better be [improved].” So far, so good, as the Mountaineers hit the ground running on Saturday.
Pre-Game Suspensions Raise Doubts
In the hour leading up to kickoff, we learned that 11 Mountaineers faced single-game suspensions for a team rules violation. Nine of those individuals play on the offensive side of the ball. Four of those seemed to be critical pieces to the run game: Junior Uzebu, Chase Behrndt, T.J. Banks, and Mike O’Laughlin. As such, we heard that Leddie Brown, in particular, expressed disappointment over the suspensions.
Mountaineers Still Find The Runway
The suspensions ultimately proved inconsequential to the result. The Mountaineers still found plenty of room to run. Employing largely three different zone run looks with slightly different tweaks, West Virginia’s offensive line held its own. Indeed, the Mountaineers rushed for 329 yards, its highest single-game total since its loss to Oklahoma in the 2016 season.
The Mountaineers averaged over ten yards per carry in the first half before pulling back on the throttle and piling up two-to-five-yard-carries up the middle for the majority of the second half. They also featured two 100-yard rushers for the first time since their win against Kansas in 2017. Brown totaled 123 yards on the ground in just ten carries (all in the first half). Brown also broke into the end zone three times during the game (twice on the ground). Alec Sinkfield, one of our surprise offensive players, also totaled 123 rushing yards (adding two rushing scores as well).
Behind Brown and Sinkfield, Tony Mathis had 55 yards and a touchdown. And freshman quarterback Garrett Greene added 33 yards on the ground. Considering the Mountaineers finished three games last season with under 30 total rushing yards, the fact that they had four individuals rush for more than 30 offers hope.
We made several predictions about the season opener in our EKU preview article. First, we predicted that the Mountaineers would win big and drop at least 50 points on the Colonels. That predicted proved true. We also predicted that the first score, if the Mountaineers received the opening kickoff, would come from Leddie Brown. Two for two. Third, we predicted that the Stills’ brothers would net five sacks. Though the brothers certainly put lot of pressure on the Colonels’ line and combined for a few tackles for loss, Eastern Kentucky’s quarterback was able to get the ball out of his hands quickly enough to avoid this fate. So we missed on that count.
Finally, we predicted four freshman to have solid impacts on the game. We got two of these right. Sam Brown saw important snaps early in the game, catching four of his five targets for 43 yards. Akheem Mesidor also tallied his first career sack.
Room For Improvement
Though the Mountaineers played well enough to build confidence in their decisive win, we can certainly identify areas where the Mountaineers need improvement.
During the pre-season, Coach Brown often lamented his inability to spend a lot of time practicing special teams play at anything close to game speed. That showed up throughout the game. Special teams accounted for five of the Mountaineers’ eight penalties. Evan Staley missed a 25-yard field goal early in the second half. And Sinkfield muffed (but recovered) a punt early in the first half.
The Mountaineers’ defense also started strong, but, on a few plays, the Colonels got West Virginia to bit hard on play action and misdirection, leading to two big negative plays in a row for Eastern Kentucky’s only touchdown of the game. Better competition will undoubtedly find ways to take greater advantage of that over pursuit.
Coach Brown’s Post-Game Remarks
Coach Brown told fans and media simply that “just playing college football is a win.” This mirrors his comments from earlier in the pre-season. He added that, “To win and to win big is a bonus,” but he continued that his team and staff were just grateful to be playing the game they love. Brown assured the fans that his players, “Showed maturity” and “Showed some improvement” and that they certainly, “Played to our standard” throughout.
Brown specifically noted the special teams errors as well. Brown said that improvement in special teams will be a continued point of emphasis. He liked that both the offense and defense started fast, played balanced football, and took the game seriously. Finally, he complimented the run game, including the running backs and the offensive line. And, just like that, the 2020 season is underway as the Mountaineers hit the ground running.