While the Mountaineers are not among the traditional blue bloods of college football, the program has been a consistent winner through its history, ranking 14th overall as the winningest program of all-time which makes this season a little hard to swallow.
As of today, the West Virginia Mountaineers stand 3-5 (1-4) on the season and are in danger of having a losing season and failing to become bowl eligible. The Mountaineers have only failed to become bowl eligible and have a winning season twice since 2000. The first time was in 2001, Rich Rodriquez’s first year as the Mountaineers head coach. That year, the Mountaineers went 3-8. The second time was in 2013, Dana Holgerson’s third season as head coach and the Mountaineers’ second year in the Big 12. The Mountaineers finished 4-8 and, yet again, failed to reach a bowl game.
So, what do the 2019 Mountaineers have in common with the 2001 and 2013 teams besides the potential to fail to be bowl eligible and have a losing record? Many things, but two in particular stand out for each season.
First, like the 2001 team, the 2019 Mountaineers have a new head coach who has implemented a new offensive and defensive philosophy. In 2000, the Mountaineers’ head coach was the legendary Don Nehlen who typically ran a Power-I offensive system before moving to a more pass-heavy offense when Marg Bulger arrived on campus, and a 4-3 zone blitzing defensive scheme. When Rodriquez arrived he implemented the spread option, an up tempo, no huddle offense, and hired a new defensive coordinator, Phil Elmassian, before transitioning to the 3-3-5 defense in 2002. Likewise, when Neal Brown arrived in Morgantown this year, he installed a new offense and defense. He replaced Dana Holgorsen’s no huddle, up tempo Air Raid offense and Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 defense with a slower, more physical and balanced Air Raid offense and Vic Koenning’s 4-2-5 defense.
"In Rod We Trust" was the motto of the 2001, now in 2019, it’s "Trust the Climb."
It will likely take a full year for Neal Brown and the current Mountaineers to adjust to the schematic changes before competing in the Big 12. It took a year for Rodriquez and the Mountaineers to adjust to the dramatic schematic changes, going from 3-8 in 2001 to 9-4 the following year.
Even more similarly, the 2001 Mountaineers were terrible on offense and very reliant on their defense to keep them in games. Being terrible on offense is not what the typical Mountaineer fan remembers of Rodriquez era.
It is easy to remember the days where Rodriquez’s offense led by a combination of either Pat White, Steve Slaton, and Darius Reynaud, or Rasheed Marshall, Avon Cobourne/Quincy Wilson, and Chris Henry, were shredding defenses and lighting the Big East on fire. Yet this year’s team resembles Rodriquez’s first year when they were terrible on offense, averaging 21.4 points per game (89th of 117), and very reliant on their defense, averaging 24.4 points per game (49th of 117). If not for the 2001 Mountaineers hanging 80 points on Rutgers, their offensive points per game average would have been much worse.
Throughout the 2001 season, the Mountaineers took a couple beatings along the way, most notably a 45-3 loss to the soon to be national champions, the Miami Hurricanes, and a 35-0 loss at the hands of its long-time rival, Virginia Tech. Similar to how this year’s team was beat by Missouri 38-7 and Oklahoma 52-14. However, following the humbling loss to Miami in their seventh game of the season, the Mountaineers displayed consistent improvement even if it was not reflected in wins. Likewise, following this year’s Mountaineers’ humbling loss to Oklahoma in its seventh game, the team has seen improvement already, as quickly as this past week’s narrow loss to undefeated Baylor. From here on out, improvement is likely to continue.
This year’s team bears another resemblance, the 2013 team. It is well known that this year’s Mountaineers lack depth across the board, comparable to 2013’s team. In 2013, the Mountaineers were in their second season as a member of the Big 12. It was evident that year, and in the prior year, that the Mountaineers lacked depth. Unlike in 2012 when the team had NFL caliber talent leading the way with the likes of Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, and Geno Smith, the 2013 team did not have enough talent to overcome depth deficiency and finish with a winning record. Although the 2013 Mountaineers were competitive in 6 out of their 8 losses, they could not finish the game and get the win.
This year’s team, like the 2013 team, lost crucial NFL caliber players in Will Grier, David Sills V, Gary Jennings Jr., Yondny Cajuste, Traveo Wesco, and David Long Jr. Few programs are able to overcome losing that much talent and still achieve at a high level. Compounding this hurdle, the Mountaineers also lost several key starters from last year’s team, notably Kenny Robinson, Marcus Simms, Derrek Pitts Jr., and Matt Jones, prior to the start of this year. Then, as if matters were not bad enough, the Mountaineers have been severely devastated by the injury bug. In short, the Mountaineers are not playing with a full deck of cards.
This lack of depth has been apparent at key moments of the game, specifically, the fourth quarter. This year’s Mountaineers squad has been competitive in three of its five losses, apart from Missouri and Oklahoma, with a chance to win going into the fourth quarter. This difficulty was on full display against Texas and Iowa State. Going into the fourth quarter of these games, the Mountaineers were within seven points and had a chance to win. But, both teams pulled away in the fourth quarter as the defense surrendered a combined 38 points in the two quarters, a good indicator of fatigue setting in due to lack of depth. It is possible that Texas and Iowa State were able to make adjustments between the third and fourth quarter and capitalize on those adjustments, but it is unlikely.
It is not a hot take to say that the 2019 Mountaineers offense is a complete mess; it is just a well-known and obvious fact. The Mountaineers struggle running, passing, catching, and run blocking. Statistically, they rank near the bottom in each of those categories. The only thing they do well is pass protection, having given up only 12 sacks on the year.
That being said, something has to change. Neal Brown has used a variety of starters at the offensive line, running back, and wide receiver positions. However, he has not yet made a position change at quarterback.
Before I am accused of blaming the offensive shortcomings solely on quarterback Austin Kendall, I want to make it clear that I fully recognize that it is not completely his fault. The offensive line has failed to control the line of scrimmage, the running backs have not run particularly well, and the wide receivers have been plagued with drops. However, Kendall has been inaccurate too often and has underthrown too many open receivers which could have resulted in touchdowns. Prime example: Kendall’s pass to Sam James in the Texas game that was under thrown, resulting in an interception.
My first suggestion: start Trey Lowe. The redshirt freshman has yet to play any meaningful football in his brief career, and starting him will allow Neal Brown to evaluate whether he is the quarterback of the future. Most importantly, starting Lowe may provide the necessary spark that this offense needs.
While Lowe’s passing ability is relatively unknown, what is known is that he is a very good athlete, being a member of the West Virginia Baseball team. Lowe’s athleticism will allow the offense to incorporate more spread option principles, specifically, more read options, run-pass options, and designed quarterback runs. Urban Meyer has explained that the objective of the spread offense is "all about equating numbers in the run game," which is done by eliminating one defender, leaving the defender unblocked, and forcing him to choose between playing the running back or the quarterback. Executed properly, the defender will choose incorrectly and run himself out of the play.
By equating numbers in the run game, the Mountaineers will create a numbers advantage that will lessen the burden on the young offensive line. A lesser burden on the offensive line will improve the running game and transform consistent 3rd and longs into 3rd and shorts, or 3rd and medium. Having more favorable 3rd downs will give the Mountaineers a better chance of converting more 1st downs, scoring more points, and keeping the defense off the field.
My next suggestion is to start George Campbell at the "Z" position and move Sam James to the "H" position. In Campbell’s very limited playing time, he has shown that he can win 1 on1 matchups down the field, something this offense has been lacking. Campbell only has 6 catches on the year, but he is averaging 31.7 yards per catch. Of his 6 catches, 4 of them have been for a touchdown, including touchdowns of 13, 28, 46, and 83 yards. Having someone who can take the top off the defense will unclog some of the congestion in the middle of the field and open up crossing routes while simultaneously having fewer defenders in the box resulting in more running lanes for the running backs. Additionally, moving James to the "H" position will provide him with more opportunities to be matched-up on linebackers. Creating more match-ups on linebackers will make James a match-up nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators due to his break-away speed and ability to make contested catches in the middle of the field. Even more terrifying would be running James on a bubble screen, slant, or seam route as part of potential run-pass options with Lowe. Maybe by incorporating these two suggestions, the Mountaineers will win 3 of their final 4 games to become bowl eligible and avoid their first losing season since 2013.