Mountaineers Focus on Kansas

Mountaineers Focus on Kansas

Seven days past the stinging defeat to hated rival Pitt, the West Virginia Mountaineers set their eyes on the Big 12. Over the past few days, the players have reiterated their goal of a Big 12 Championship. Perhaps that seems a tad ambitious, but we would certainly prefer to see the players eager to prove doubters wrong than to give in to modest expectations. In his interview this week, J.T. Daniels told media and fans that the team moved on from the Pitt loss almost immediately. Instead, the Mountaineers focus on Kansas and taking care of business in their home and Big 12 opener.

What Kansas Brings to the Table

Plenty of voices will tell you that Kansas is still Kansas. Indeed, they may still end the season with nine to ten losses. That said, the Jayhawks still put some points on the board last season and showed a willingness to fight through a decades-long period of adversity. The program remains excited about its prospects under Lance Leipold, having just extended his contract. Last week, in fact, the Jayhawks did something they have not done in quite some time: they looked like a Power Five team beating up on an FCS school.

Sure, they beat up on Tennessee Tech, but at least they beat up on somebody. The 46-point margin of victory put up in that win represents the largest margin of victory by Kansas since their season opener in 2016 against Rhode Island when they won by 49 points. Kansas’ defense also has not held any opponent to 10 points or fewer since their 31-7 win over CMU in 2018.

What does this mean for this season? That remains anybody’s guess. We cannot, however, see Kansas allowing itself to be bullied quite as easily this year as they have in the last several. Clearly, Kansas still has work to do. That said, they might find their way into a couple of conference wins this season.

Mountaineers Cannot Look Ahead

As a result, the Mountaineers cannot afford to look ahead. Playing their home opener after an exciting game against Pitt (even if the end result was not what the team wanted), WVU must remain vigilant. After the loss, Daniels admitted that the team had some execution issues. He was, however, encouraged by the team’s resilience and fight. “We can fix execution,” Daniels added.

They will look to start employing those fixes against a Kansas team they should outmatch at every position. Simply, even if Kansas is better this season, the Mountaineers should dispense with the Jayhawks with ease. To date, the Mountaineers’ focus on Kansas must remain sharp. So far, the players’ attitudes seem appropriately hungry.

If game one represents adversity, game two must represent WVU overcoming it if they want to live up to the goals the players set for themselves. But what execution issues must they fix?

Offensive Line Needs to Settle In

In his interview this week, Daniels gave us a clear picture from the pocket as he saw it. He told fans and media that Pat Narduzzi often sends six to seven players into the backfield when an opposing quarterback starts gaining momentum against the defense. Given the way the Pitt secondary played the last few years, frankly, it is the right game plan. Daniels noted that the pressure he faced came less from the offensive line getting beat and more from the fact that, with six to seven one-on-one blocking assignments, it is simply challenging to win them all. He is not wrong.

That said, we would still like to see the offensive line settle in. Running lanes should be plentiful, and Daniels should have plenty of time in the pocket to pick apart the Jayhawks’ secondary. West Virginia still has some youth on its line, and putting a tough game against arguably the best defensive line they will face all season behind them represents a critical task to build confidence early.

Secondary Must Grow Up Quickly

The secondary saw some early adversity. Some of that stems from two of their top cornerbacks coming out of the game. Top gun Charles Woods suffered an injury of undisclosed severity (though it looked to be an ankle sprain). Then, Wes McCormick was ejected from the game on a targeting penalty. Woods may or may not be back. McCormick will not be eligible to play until the second half. As a result, the Mountaineers could find themselves already on the wrong side of seasoned depth.

As a result, some of that young talent must step up quickly. Pitt clearly saw something they liked against Rashad Ajayi, as they picked on him often in the second half. Some of that goes to the scheme, as the play action softened the middle of the field. That said, Ajayi did not offer the type of coverage the defensive staff seemed excited about from this position room throughout Fall Camp. We look for him to put the performance behind him and bounce back.

Andrew Wilson-Lamp and Mumu Bin-Wahad should also see plenty of snaps early in the game, particularly if Woods sits for another game or two. Those two have not seen the field much yet (particularly since Bin-Wahad is a true freshman). They both, however, offer promise, and the sooner they put that potential to work, the better the West Virginia defense can be.

Skills Positions Need to Put Drops Behind Them

Similarly, the skilled players on the team need to forget about the drops they had against Pitt. We counted five unforced errors by the skill guys and seven total drops. The theme seems more troubling given the struggles the receivers have had over the past two seasons. Two seasons ago, the Mountaineers had one of the worst drop rates in the nation. Last year, they started slow but overcame those issues as the season wore on.

Hopefully, the drops against Pitt were more of a product of first-game jitters playing in front of a beyond-sell-out crowd against a hated rival. Bouncing back against a less-talented Kansas secondary in front of a friendly home crowd could also offer a boost to the skill players’ confidence. We know from watching Sam James‘ own struggles that it is all too easy to let a few misses get into their heads. They have to overcome that, and Daniels has not been shy about letting us know that he has an excellent rapport with his targets. In other words, their signal caller will continue to give them every opportunity to make the big plays.

At the end of the day, if the Mountaineers focus on Kansas and put their season-opening loss behind them, we think West Virginia should win by three scores. If, on the other hand, they let their game one execution issues linger, it could be another close game (as it was last season).