There's nothing complicated about this. It ain't long division. The West Virginia Mountaineers showed a lot of growth and promise in their hard-fought 23-33 loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide, but they need to finally begin showing some results. The Towson Tigers are a very respectable FCS team that made it as far as their division's championship game last season, but after the Tigers opened the season last week with a loss to Central Connecticut State, WVU simply needs to take care of business.
As dangerous as we all know it is to be dismissive of anybody, the fact of the matter is Mountaineer fans will be focusing a lot more on what their team is doing than the opponent. With that in mind, I'm going to do something a little different with this preview and give the five things I'm looking for on Saturday night.
(having said that if you want a great look at Towson, check out Chris Anderson's Q & A with the Baltimore Sun's Edward Lee.)
Let's get into it.
Coffee is for closers and last week the 'Eers only had a single cup. After watching a pair of drives stall inside the Alabama 10 yard line and on the heels of a 2013 season where they only converted touchdowns on 21 of 40 trips inside the red zone (103rd nationally), the Mountaineers need to show that they can finish drives. I want to see a final score divisible by 7. 42, 49, 70, hell 35. Any of those work. For all the growth we saw from guys like Clint Trickett and Kevin White, the only negative I took out of last Saturday was that WVU's play inside the red zone looked an awful lot like 2013. Dropped passes, missed opportunities and field goals, field goals, field goals.
I'm not saying WVU can't beat Towson 33-14, but they need to get things cleaned up before heading to College Park. And to get things cleaned up in the red zone they will have to:
2) Run the Ball
After springing out of the gate for a combined 26 yards on 6 carries in the game's opening drive, Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood totaled only 21 yards on 10 carries the rest of the day. Obviously a big part of that had to do with Alabama and a cycle of defensive linemen that made it very hard to open up gaps, but WVU needs to establish a meaningful ground game against the Tigers. Shell showed great ability and even flashed some speed in his first action as a Mountaineer and Smallwood continues to improve. It would be good to see Dreamius Smith, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie integrate into things as well so that Dana Holgorsen can fully develop his playbook in preparation for Maryland. Quentin Spain and the WVU offensive line did a good job keeping Trickett upright against the Tide rush, but now it's time to open up some holes.
3) Don't Change a Thing On Special Teams (Except For One Thing)
I'm even afraid to mention this for fear of jinxing it, but the WVU kick and punt coverage teams have been outstanding for the last year and a game. (Old-school WVU fans are cussing me for jinxing it.) For all the criticism he hast taken, Special Teams Coach Joe DeForest deserves a lot of credit for tightening things up on units that have been traditional gold and blue bugaboos. And credit Holgorsen for giving him the horses to do it by not being afraid to play starters on special teams.
The only complaint coming out of 2013 for that third side of the ball was the kick and punt return units, which were atrocious. Well the kick returns don't seem to have been anything that human Lamborghini Mario Alford couldn't fix, but the punt return team looked......uh....hmmm. Yeah. Jordan Thompson did a lot of very good things on Saturday, but he also fielded a punt inside the 10 yard line RUNNING TOWARDS HIS OWN END ZONE. Disaster was averted as Squirt caught the ball before being slung into his own end zone, but that's just not something that can happen. WVU simply has to find a way to put a punt return team out there that can not just field the ball cleanly (often a bridge too far the past 2+ seasons) but gain a little field position to keep the offense from being buried in a hole. The 2013 Maryland game turned on a fumbled punt that the Terps converted to a score - nobody wants to see a repeat in two weeks.
4) Nobody Touch Kevin White and Mario Alford
Seriously, wrap those guys in foam, give them a security detail and have the FAA institute a no-fly zone over them at all times. They were close to perfect on Saturday and both look to be perfect compliments to each other. White lived up to the preseason hype against the Tide, catching 9 balls for 143 yards and a score. He is a huge body that represents the most imposing physical receiving threat Morgantown has seen since the late Chris Henry. Then there's Alford, who showed off a top gear that might even be a fraction higher than - gasp - Tavon Austin.
(Before you call that hyperbole, go back and watch that kick return 5 or 20 times. Kid was all but standing still after that cut before turning the corner and finding his top gear alarmingly fast. Like Discovery Channel fast. I half expected him to celebrate in the end zone by devouring a gazelle. He was racing past guys who had the angle on him. Talented young men who play for Alabama. That kick return was as impressive a display of pure speed as I've seen.)
5) Defensive Depth
As Mike Casazza astutely pointed out earlier this week, several WVU defensive starters saw extensive action in the Georgia Dome.
Then again, if Karl Joseph is going to play the way he did, you don’t need a lot of (Jerrod) Harper. Joseph didn’t get a rest and made 18 damn tackles. Same goes for Nick Kwiatkoski and Tonkery (11 tackles). They were good, too, and we only saw Al-Rasheed Benton when Kwiatkoski got hurt and Isaiah Bruce on special teams. You can live with that for a game, and since this post is about one game, that’s fine. Those guys were fine, but they were fresh, too. That can’t happen 13 times, right?
No it can't. And it certainly doesn't need to happen the week before what could be the formative game of the young season - nor do I think it will. I think we'll see more of Benton and Bruce and hopefully Edward Muldrow can show some of what we heard about in camp. All we heard for the last couple months is the depth that this team has built - it's time to see some of it.
So there it is - that's what I'll be looking for when the Mountaineers take the field on Saturday night against Towson and what you should be looking for, too. With a reverent bow to the football gods I'm going to call this game what it is - a tune-up for the trip to Maryland that will almost certainly set the season trajectory for an improved but still very impressionable team. They need to sharpen what we saw against Alabama and take it to the next level. This team could be very good but they need to show that with tangible results in the home opener.