A win is a win. The Mountaineers took down the Kansas Jayhawks Saturday night and notched their sixth win of the season, earning them bowl eligibility for the 18th time in the last 20 seasons. On a day that featured The Game at the noon spot, the Iron Bowl in the afternoon, and Bedlam at night, this wasn’t a game that was high on many watch lists and it definitely didn’t provide the energy or drama of the aforementioned games. The Mountaineers have now quietly won four of their last six games and have righted a campaign that looked disastrous at the midway point of the season. With a bowl game looming in late December, Mountaineer football isn’t done for 2021 just yet! Let’s look at the numbers.
Kansas does not have a good football team. West Virginia didn’t play their best football at all on Saturday but they didn’t need to. The Mountaineers weathered a few mistakes such as a fumble on their first offensive possession, multiple penalities on scoring plays, a pick six, and a kickoff strategy that continues to give the opposition great field position. These mishaps seemed minor due to the talent disparity on the field and West Virginia made up for them with ease. This didn’t feel like a normal football game to me at times. For example, after Doege threw the pick six that tied the game early in the 3rd quarter, West Virginia only threw the ball three more times in the final 27 minutes of game clock. The Mountaineers settled into something they knew they could dominate the Jayhawks in and rode it to victory. They could afford to give up two turnovers and get destroyed in the field possession game yet again and it didn’t seem to matter because of the opponent.
According to PFF, this was West Virginia’s best performance both on offense and defense versus an FBS opponent this season. It was their weakest competition, sure, but several teams have gotten hung up on Kansas this year. The Mountaineers responded well after a sluggish start to the game and again after a pick six allowed the game to be tied after half. They didn’t panic and stuck to what worked to get the job done. Doege had an okay game according to PFF (68 grade), but the real stars of the offense were in the running game. Leddie Brown and Tony Mathis Jr. both eclipsed 100 yards rushing, with Mathis Jr. earning the highest PFF grade on the offense.
As much as I’d like to deeply analyze this game, it’s hard knowing the talent difference on the field. That’s not to say that Kansas hasn’t improved. Though they are still the bottom of the conference, the gap has closed substantially. I think this Kansas team will be good under Leipold in years to come. They just aren’t there yet.
Let’s talk bigger picture. Try to travel back to the college football preseason, a world where Spencer Rattler was the Heisman favorite, Brain Kelly was the coach of Notre Dame, and you’d never heard a story about Pole Assassin’s monkey. If I told you back then that West Virginia would beat Virginia Tech, Iowa State, Texas, and lose by a field goal to Oklahoma, then you would have likely been very excited and slamming bets on the West Virginia over/under win total of 6.5. Now travel back to the bye week, where the Mountaineers sat at 2-4 and you legitimately asked yourself if Kansas was the only win left on the schedule. What I’m trying to say is that there were positives and negatives for this regular season as a whole. From a macro point of view, it probably was a slightly disappointing season to Mountaineer fans, but through the lens of the bye week, it was a solid second half of the season. I put this poll on my Twitter six weeks ago asking how WVU would finish the season after the bye. About 72% of people who voted in the poll said that WVU would get four or fewer wins.
Where do you have WVU finishing the season? Currently 2-4— Joel (@WVStatsGuy) October 19, 2021
Through this rollercoaster of a year, the Mountaineers actually finished in conference right where they were expected to. The Big 12 media preseason poll predicted the Mountaineers to finish sixth in the conference, exactly where they ended up landing. Looking under the Mountaineers in the final standings you’ll find three teams they beat and Texas Tech, who knocked off WVU by a field goal. Looking above West Virginia, you’ll see the top two teams in the league who blew the doors off the Mountainers, followed by Oklahoma, Iowa State, and Kansas State. Two of those teams bested the Mountaineers in close games and Iowa State was defeated on a day where West Virginia played arguably its best football of the season. Sitting around the middle of the conference feels about right for this team all things considered.
If you are discussing the “Climb”, there are several ways to spin it. Going 5-6 against P5 teams isn’t an ideal season, but rallying to close the season 4-2 (with a bowl game to potentially make it 5-2) could bring real momentum into next season. Minus that bowl game, we are three seasons into the Neal Brown experience. Most agree that his first season was a true “bare cupboard” experience. His second year was especially strange with COVID causing empty stadiums and a shortened nine-game regular season. I’m going to be evaluating a few things about Neal’s three seasons in the coming weeks and discuss where we sit on the “Climb”. If there is anything you’d specifically like me to investigate, please comment below or reach out to me on Twitter.