Mountaineers Need to Find Urgency Against Towson
After a crushing blow from Kansas last weekend, the West Virginia Mountaineers need to find urgency against Towson. This much is simple. Usually, when we write our weekly previews, we focus a lot on the team ahead. This week, we will do everything but focus on Towson.
While they come into this Saturday’s game 2-0, Towson represents a mid-level FCS school. No FCS team managed a win over WVU in its history. If this game represents the first such loss (and we cannot imagine any reason why it would be), then we fully anticipate changes in leadership, buyout levels notwithstanding. Simply, a loss cannot happen. We do not think one will, either, but this game represents more than just an FCS win to end a two-game skid. Instead, we need to see the how of the thing. How do the Mountaineers win? How many bodies do they rotate? What do they look like while taking care of business?
It is amazing what a single game can do. After the Pitt game, we were disappointed and criticized Head Coach Neal Brown for not going for it on fourth-and-one. We stand by that. To us, the decision represented a lack of the fighting spirit that defines a Mountaineer.
Not to wax philosophical, but West Virginia fans represent a unique (in a good way) set of college football fans. With no professional teams and only one Power Five team in the State, the Mountaineers remain the flagship. Academically, WVU receives a black eye because of that mission. West Virginia is the only State in the nation that is entirely within the region known as Appalachia. As a result, the rolling hills that define its topography make it difficult to connect its smaller towns. Mountaineers enjoy the isolation, but it produces, to the outside world, a view that West Virginians are less educated and less traveled than many of their counterparts.
Home to just 1.8 million people, it ranks 39th in the country. It ranks 41st in GDP per capita. Big pharmaceutical companies took specific aim at West Virginia when introducing opioid pain medications en masse. Maybe it started with good intentions; after all, the coal mining, steel manufacturing, and chemical manufacturing jobs that dominated the economic landscape for the last century represent literal back-breaking work. That said, the current opioid epidemic took an early foothold in West Virginia’s rolling hills.
Thus, the national perception of West Virginia remains a poor state, littered with poor people, unevenly dispersed, and poorly educated; but, hey, they are nice people (except for those addicted to pills). The perception is unfair, and it always has been. But the people of West Virginia do not play the victim. Instead, they rise up to meet those challenges. In life, just as in football, Mountaineers need to find urgency.
So Where is the Fight?
When we wrote our series this Summer about Mountaineer moments in adversity, this is what we meant. The people of West Virginia do not lie down and just give in to this outside perception. They fight against it. And when they have won, the massive chip on the shoulder remains. Because it is the biggest show in town, for better or worse, the Mountaineers carry this expectation onto the field–at least, that is what fans and former players and coaches have come to expect.
There are indeed bigger things than football, but the Old Gold and Blue represent a microcosm of the fighting spirit of the Mountain State. The overused “Trust the Climb” phrase that Brown and his staff have adopted certainly stemmed from both that culture and the State’s terrain. To get anywhere along those country roads, you will climb through that rolling terrain. To get anywhere as a West Virginian, you will similarly climb through doubts and misguided stereotypes. Thus, fans expect the team–and anyone representing it–to fight against any adversity thrown their way.
This is why, when we previewed the Kansas game, we wrote that the Mountaineers cannot afford to look ahead. We previewed a Kansas team trending positively under Lance Leipold. At the end of the day, though, for the Mountaineers to do what they clearly want to do, they could not be on the receiving end of a statement by Kansas. They needed to shake off the loss to Pitt and focus on the road ahead.
Simply, they did nothing of the sort last weekend. To credit Kansas, they came in with a game plan to neutralize West Virginia’s biggest defensive strength (its defensive line) and to require much of its greatest weakness (the secondary). By the end of the first half, this much was clear: Kansas prevailed in that mission.
Sure, Kansas dressed it up with plenty of off-balance looks and pre-snap motion, but they basically ran the triple option and used six linemen (with plenty of 12 personnel) to keep the defensive line out of the plays. The pre-snap adjustments clearly confused the linebackers and safeties. All of that talk about “body language” during the game was really in-fighting among the players because the second and third levels could not figure out how to stick with their assignments through the window dressing. Eventually, they gave up.
Who is to Blame?
At this point in the season, we can say that West Virginia is 2-3 plays away from being 2-0 with a win over a hated rival and almost certainly ranked in the Top 25. That said, the fan in us (or at least the fan in this author) grows weary of saying that. Every year, the Mountaineers a half-dozen plays away from being a better team. That they remain those same few plays away from being a ranked team falls directly into the lap of leadership.
The staff, for good reason, does not invite media into the locker room at halftime. As a result, we do not know what was said at halftime. What we know, though, is that coaching staffs often make adjustments. In this case, the adjustments should have been grilling into the heads of a few key personnel: here is your assignment; I do not care how many times they move before the snap, stick to your assignment and your assignment only. Why? If they contain the play to the inside, they can remove both the outside quarterback run and the outside pitch from the equation. That forces Kansas to adjust.
If the staff invited adjustments, though, they certainly did not make their way onto the field. By that time, the Mountaineers’ need to find urgency should have been apparent. Instead, Kansas doubled down on their game plan in the second half, and it proved more than enough for them to leave Morgantown with exactly the type of statement win they hoped for. It left Mountaineer fans shaking their heads wondering why Liepold can rebuild a historically-bad Kansas team but Brown cannot actually seem to get a footing on the first step of his own “climb.”
Thus, the Need to Find an Urgency
Two years ago, Marshall replaced its head coach. After last season, the Thundering Herd replaced their quarterback. Fifteen games later, that program went to South Bend and beat top-ten Notre Dame fairly convincingly. Two years ago, Kansas replaced its head coach. In their last five games, that program racked up two in-conference road victories. The road win against Texas late last season, by the way, represented the first time Kansas beat a conference foe on the road since 2008. As we said, the program has been historically bad. Those schools represent two examples of programs that fought against expectation, perception, and talent gaps to prove their point and make a statement.
West Virginia certainly does not have sole possession of the underdog boxing above its weight mentality. That said, they have previously embodied the tagline. If they cannot muster urgency after an 0-2 start that includes being on the receiving end of a statement game, urgency may simply never come for this staff. For a team expected to finish with 5-6 wins, two early losses certainly do not define a season. That said, easy wins are hard to circle on the calendar at this point. Those 1-2 plays in a game that change the outcome for the worse must be turned around in the hurry.
Brown has to know that he is fighting for his job. If the team supports him, they have to know that, too. Even if they do not, they should understand by now the burdens they carry onto that field and want to prove the doubters–that include a whole lot of Mountaineer faithful–wrong. That is the Mountaineer standard about which our friend Dale Wolfley has spoken to us several times this year. This is why the Mountaineers need to find urgency against Towson.