We are now at the point of the season where trends are beginning to emerge, and what you see with your own two eyes are things you have to believe may be true. That is certainly the case with the West Virginia Mountaineers, who are now 3-1 and tied for #1 in the conference standings. There were some things that happened—some were good, some were not good, and some were in-between—but the single most important stat right now is that West Virginia is 3-1.
Let’s start with the defense and Jordan Lesley. For a while now, quite a long while, I’ve been on the case that Jordan Lesley’s defenses are not good and don’t do enough to help the team out, but last week against Pitt and this week against the Texas Tech Red Raiders, the defense has generated havoc stats. Against Pitt last week, the Mountaineers had 1 sack, 5 TFLs, 4 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions (13) versus 56 plays for a havoc rate of 23%. Against Texas Tech, the Mountaineers had 2 sacks, 4 TFLs, 10 breakups (but no picks) - 16 of 81 plays for a 19% Havoc Rate. 20% is very good, and Jordan Lesley’s defenses have now shown in back-to-back weeks that they are capable of being something more than a big rock.
Let’s throw some numbers at you about this defense. Through three FBS games (all stats are based on FBS opponents and exclude FCS opponents), they are 4th in the nation in opponent completion percentage (48.39%), while they are 32nd in yards-per-pass (6.2). The defense is 3rd in the country in 3rd down conversion rate (22.50%). All of this is good and does show that Lesley has made the changes to the scheme and system to make this work. Neal Brown talked about this a bit last night in his post-game presser, saying some of the changes made were to go to a Match Coverage rather than the Zone Coverage that you’ve seen. Last year, the “simplification” of the defense was to go to a zone coverage after the defense could not get lined up or communicate well enough for the match coverage. This year, after a few games, it was evident that the zone coverage wasn’t sufficient, and the team needed the Match coverage to hide its deficiencies and use its athleticism. It appears to be working.
As much praise as I can muster for the defense, the quarterback play through three games (excluding Duquesne because Duquesne) has been abysmal. Again, excluding FCS opponents, the Mountaineers currently rank 75th in completion percentage, 120th in yards per pass, 123 in passes per game, 126 in passing yards per game, 90th in interception percentage, and 100th in sack percentage. Neal Brown and the Mountaineers want to be an old-school, grind-it-out, slow-it-down team. You can’t do that if you cannot throw the ball at least a little, and right now the Mountaineers can’t.
I can already hear some of you—the rain played a factor, and we just missed/dropped a sure-fire 80-yard touchdown. Yes, the wide receivers suck. Yes, the weather played a factor. Yes, there was a drop. But this was not an aberration where we can say “we’ve seen better, so today was one of those days”. Yesterday was the norm. Yesterday was Groundhog’s day. Yesterday was the same thing we’ve seen for quite a while now - bad QB play, bad WR play, and a whole lot of teeth grinding and hand wringing.
Through three FBS games, West Virginia has thrown for 321 yards. In three games. Not averaged 321 yards per game. Thrown for. 162 yards against Penn State, 60 yards against Pitt, 99 yards against Texas Tech. Of that 321 yards, 58 of them or almost 1/5th of the total yards have come on two plays - a 37-yard catch by Devin Carter and a 21-yard catch by Kole Taylor.
I am sure the quarterback will get better, but will he get better in time for Brown? Because...
This Isn’t Sustainable
The last two wins are nice. Last week against Pitt, I got the crow out and started up the grille. This week, I put that bird on the grille, and I’m prepared to start eating. I didn’t think Brown would get here. I thought we weren’t this good. To his credit, Brown has found a way to win, and if you go back to last year, Neal Brown is 5-2 in his last 7 games with wins over: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Pitt, and Texas Tech. Most fans would absolutely take that. Yet, the offense has not scored more than 24 points in any of those wins. The offense hasn’t thrown for over 200 since Oklahoma, and that was in part due to JT Daniels playing nearly a half. Rushing-wise, we’re seeing the rushing yards slowly begin to drop, and the average rush begins to drop because teams aren’t worried about getting beat. Through three Power 5 games, West Virginia is averaging 17.3 points per game. That is good for 109th in the country, but only 13th in the Big 12 because Baylor is somehow worse. You needed weather and an injury to hold Texas Tech down, and you can’t guarantee that you will get both every week.
You’ve seen this story before. Remember in 2012 when the defense was so bad the offense couldn’t sustain the load of needing to be so good for every possession and eventually crumbled? OR what about 2019 when you saw the dam break as the offense just couldn’t sustain enough to keep the defense fresh.
The quarterback play has to get better, and the wide receiver play has got to improve. Whoever, whatever, whyever, the receivers have been bad for five years now. It’s not just a reaction to the weather, and it’s not just a reaction to one game. The receivers can’t get separation, they don’t create big plays, and they don’t slip/break tackles in the open. Couple that with a quarterback who doesn’t throw them open, who doesn’t throw a good deep ball, and doesn’t back the coverages up, and you have a recipe where teams begin to not fear you and eventually take you away from what you want to do.
Kudos to Neal Brown
I’ll leave with this: I wasn’t the biggest Neal Brown fan. The kneeled PAT against NC State started it. The claims of a bare cupboard when you had multiple players returning from a 2018 squad soured me. The constant pandering, the bad record, the bad offense, and being told it takes years to build a team while watching everyone else not take years – all of it played into just disliking the coach and wanting something new. I did not think he could win yesterday, but he did. Against our biggest rival, Brown’s team lost their starting quarterback and played a redshirt freshman for the majority of the game. Instead of trying to force the quarterback to do things he wasn’t comfortable or able to do, Brown called a conservative game, knowing that Pitt was just worse. Against Texas Tech, Brown once again didn’t try to push the pedal with Nicco and played a conservative game. His quarterback threw two interceptions. His team finished 4-14 on 3rd or 4th down. We rushed for 3.7 yards per carry. But the team found a way to win and to score a touchdown in a drive he had to have. Brown’s coaching won those games.