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Where Does West Virginia Go From Here?

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The promise of “next year” is getting harder and harder to sell. Just where do the Mountaineers go next year following that bowl performance and knowing so many players are gone from this year.

NCAA Football: Camping World Bowl-West Virginia vs Syracuse Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

dé·jà vu (noun)

  1. a feeling of having already experienced the present situation.

The present situation is that the West Virginia Mountaineers have endured three straight bowl losses where they failed to score 20 points, despite having an offense that has averaged over 31 points a game in the regular season. Sure there have been extenuating circumstances in at least the last two seasons but I doubt that makes any of us feel better to watch our offense flounder and spin its tires in the mud knowing that one big throw or one big catch can get the ship righted and the car back in gear.

When the 2019 season starts, West Virginia will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, a new starting left tackle, new starting tight end, two starting wide receivers, starting right guard, starting nose tackle and defensive end, and two starting safeties. That is a lot of high-level skill positions to have to replace in one offseason if you are anyone, but especially if you are not an elite, blue blood who has 4 stars waiting in the wings to replace 4 stars.

West Virginia is in this boat because its best position to make a deep run in college football is having a senior laden team that has been coached up for years and can run its offense and defense without needing the coaches to make every single call perfect. It almost worked in 2018, as the Mountaineers were one half away against Oklahoma State from advancing to the Big 12 Championship Game and at mimimum, playing in the Sugar Bowl.

So now what about 2019?

Decide on a QB Early

Whoever is going to start for the Mountaineers in 2019, Dana Holgorsen needs to decide early. Will that player be Jack Allison because he has been in the program for two years and has the most experience or will it be Trey Lowe III because he brings a different dimension to the offense, one that helped the team win 10 games just two years ago?

Dana Holgorsen went with a quarterback competition in 2013, having to decide on senior quarterback Paul Millard who was in the system for a couple of years, big, strong freshman Ford Childress who offered the prospect of a big arm and pedigree but inexperience, or Florida State transfer Clint Trickett. Holgorsen couldn’t decide on a starter, splitting reps between players and never really deciding on a starter until the first game of the season. When Millard was ineffective, he switched to Childress who then got hurt two games into his freshman season. Finally Trickett came on and proved to be serviceable but he suffered from not having first string reps all season. The next season, Holgorsen decided on Trickett early and it paid dividends.

I would caution people passing judgement on Jack Allison based on one game in which he was without three of the starters: left tackle Yodny Cajuste, wide receiver Gary Jennings and a late scratch, wide receiver Marcus Simms. Jennings and Simms’ loss was likely bigger because they would have given the Mountaineers two more experienced players for the Syracuse defense to worry about and someone who could take the top off the defense (Simms).

Use the First Four Games

The good news is that the 2019 schedule features four winnable games immediately. The Mountaineers open with James Madison, then travel to Missouri Tigers before hosting N.C. State Wolfpack. The Mountaineers then open Big 12 play against the Les Miles-led Kansas Jayhawks.

All four games are winnable. Winnable does not mean easy, but it does mean that the Mountaineers can use those games to work out the kinks. James Madison is good but is a FCS team and West Virginia is a Power 5 team—they should win that game. Missouri and N.C. State will be replacing senior, record-setting quarterbacks with likely freshman signal callers. Kansas, well, is still Kansas and Les Miles is not going to turn that team around in one offseason. Matt Campbell, who is a fantastic coach, went 3-9 his first year at Iowa State.

Dana Holgorsen needs to use those four games to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of his quarterback and his team. Does he have a team of possession receivers that will require a lot of crossing and out routes? Does he have a player who can take the top off a defense? How will he use the run game? All of those offenses questions need to be answered before the team gets into the meat of the schedule.

Lean on the Run Game

So far I’ve focused on the quarterback, but a quarterback’s best friend is the run game. The 2019 Mountaineers will feature a pair of senior runningbacks in Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway. As the 2018 season progressed, the Mountaineers leaned on those two backs and they performed. Pettaway came up huge against Texas while McKoy proved to be a reliable three-down performer, capable of both catching the ball out of the backfield and running between and around the tackles.

While the Mountaineers leaned on those players, they also have dynamic players in Leddie Brown, Alec Sinkfield and Tevin Bush. This capable stable of running backs should allow the team to control the game. So many of the Big 12 teams are now running the up-tempo Air Raid spread that a ball-control team can quickly throw offensive teams off their game. In 2016, when the Mountaineers last won 10 games, they ran a heavy power-run game scheme that allowed them to get leads and then grind out wins.

Get To A Bowl

Some of you won’t like this, but next year it is absolutely imperative that the team get to a bowl game. Firstly, Dana has already had one stinker of a season this decade and two in less than seven years is unacceptable. That year was understood due to the lack of overall depth of the team but that supposedly has been rectified. Secondly, getting to a bowl game allows the team extra practices and those are always good for young players.

The 2014 team won seven games and got those extra practices which helped lead to eight wins in 2015. Eight wins in 2015 turned into 10 wins in 2016 with a senior team. Get to a bowl game and get those practices.

WIN THE DAMN BOWL GAME

Finally, Dana you gotta start winning these games. The program, overall, is on the right track but watching this team continually come up short in the last game of the season puts a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Sure, there have been circumstances the last two years and three of the last five, but still, how long are we the only team dealing with the loss of a quarterback and have a backup quarterback who just isn’t quite ready. Enough is enough and the team, the fans and the alumni need some bowl wins. Win the damn game.