The season couldn’t have started any worse for the West Virginia Mountaineers, first with a game-sealing interception against Pittsburgh that the Panthers returned for the game-winning score and a dropped reception near the goalline that could have given the Mountaineers a chance to tie or win the game. Coupled with that, the Panthers are the historic rival of the Mountaineers so the loss stings that much more, especially after videos of head coach Neal Brown emerged showing him talking to Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, a video that seemed to show Narduzzi as pumped up and Brown as amazed at all of the pagentry and spectacle “for one game”.
Following that loss, the Mountaineers defense couldn’t find a way to stop what is now a Heisman hopeful in Jalon Daniels and the Kansas Jayhawks. The Jayhawks appeared to have circled the Mountaineers on their calendars, prepped and planned all offseason on how they were going to come into Morgantown on a night game and beat the Mountaineers. And that is exactly what they did, rarely punting and getting some help from costly Mountaineer mistakes that resulted in an overtime touchdown for the Jayhawks, followed once again by a game-ending interception turned pick-six.
After starting 0-2, the Mountaineers got themselves a “slump-buster” when they took on FCS Towson Tigers, who they declawed pretty easily. All four quarterbacks saw the field and scored a touchdown and the team rallied from an 0-2 start to give the fans a good “Family Day” win.
Last Thursday, the Mountaineers needed a boost and for the first time since 2005, played both Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh in the same season. It felt like the old Big East days, playing on Thursday night in front of a sellout crowd who wanted nothing more than to beat you and make you cry. The Mountaineers bumbled - Tony Mathis lost a fumble and Reese Smith muffed a punt - but the Virginia Tech Hokies came out of the game looking more like the Black Knight from Monty Python. Self inflicted wound after self inflicted wound gave the Mountaineers chance after chance after chance after chance.
Now the Mountaineers sit 2-2 and should feel good about themselves. They seem to have fixed the problems that once ailed them against the Panthers and Jayhawks but looming in the distance are the Texas Longhorns and Baylor Bears.
Two weeks ago, we were talking about how much longer head coach Neal Brown had as the coach of the Mountaineers. Two weeks later, we feel sure he will make it to the finish line, but we don’t know if he’ll get a chance to run again next year. The next two games could be the fans final countdown.
Brown’s teams have unfortunately been characterized by undisciplined play and costly mistakes at the worst time. Many fans recognized that the rebuild / retool / rework / re-(adjective) of the Mountaineers from the high-flying, sub-par defense of the previous years into a tougher, more physical squad would take time, but we are now 39 games into the future from that time and the time is now for this team to be the image of its coach.
Brown currently sits at 19 wins versus 20 losses as the head coach of the Mountaineers. His team has failed to win three games in a row in his tenure with the Mountaineers. He has a chance on Saturday to do that, against a Longhorns squad that just blew a double-digit halftime lead to the Texas Tech Red Raiders, but we’ve seen this story before with Brown.
In 2019, his teams beat NC State and Kansas, then lost to #11 Texas 42-31. In 2020, his teams beat Baylor and Kansas, only to lose to Texas Tech. Last year they beat LIU and Virginia Tech, only to lose to Oklahoma. They beat TCU and #22 Iowa State, only to then lose to Oklahoma State. They then also beat Texas and Kansas later in the year, only to put up an egg against Minnesota.
We’ve seen Brown’s teams start to turn the corner, only to brake when they should accelerate, or pull the e-brake too quickly and spin out of control instead of staying with the turn. At this juncture and at this point in the season, Brown is not only fighting to get his teams over the hump and put a winning streak together, he’s coaching for at minimum the support of the fans. The fans have wanted to support him from the get-go but miscues and poor play have made many fans abandon ship.
Lose the next two games and Brown will be back to 3 games under .500 in his tenure with the Mountaineers, sitting at 2-4 and needing a miracle to break the 6-win mark. 2-4 all but seals the fate of the team to being at best a 6-win club (again) and would signal that after 4 years we’re no better than a .500 club. 2-4 would put a bowl in serious jeopardy and you would have to ask yourself what exactly is the 20 million we are paying Neal Brown buying us.
Win one of the next two and while the club would only be 3-3, you could potentially see 4 more wins on the schedule to get to 7-5 or maybe even 8-4 depending on how the team continues to gel.
The work starts now for the team to turn this season around and become the team many thought they would be in the offseason. The Mountaineers put themself in a hole to open the season but now they’ve climbed out of the hole to get back to even. They cannot afford to fall backwards and into the hole again. They must continue to push foward and start winning games and avoid the mistakes that seem to always cost them. Now the real work begins for West Virginia.