West Virginia travels to Columbia, Missouri on Saturday to take on the Tigers.
The Mountaineers were able to grind out a win against perennial FCS-power James Madison in their season opener. Many picked WVU to lose the first game Neal Brown era.
The Tigers, on the other hand, were heavy favorites against a mediocre Wyoming team that was picked to finish fourth in their Mountain West Conference division. Missouri found a way to lose their opener.
Saturday’s games is a tale of struggle and redemption on both sides of the ball. While WVU got the win, they have units on offense and defense that must show improvement.
For Missouri, their whole team is seeking redemption after a terrible season-opening loss.
While some of these are going to seem obvious, there are three keys to a Mountaineer victory.
- West Virginia must find a way block and run
This is a multi-level problem that must at least be partially solved, or at least improved upon, in week two.
Even for the casual fan, this goes without saying and was painfully obvious in the underwhelming, almost non-existent, rushing attack in the opening week.
In week one, the Mountaineer backfield combined for a whopping 34-yards of rushing. Martell Pettaway led the way with 9 carries for 20 yards. Kennedy McKoy, who had been publicly praised by Head Coach Neal Brown, was able to garner 11 yards on 11 carries. That’s a rough day in the backfield.
Pettaway and McKoy are proven commodities, if we broke down every play some fault would be evident, its hard to pin the majority of the blame on the running backs themselves.
Ultimately (and once again obviously) the blame falls to those who were doing the blocking. Many have been quick to point to the offensive line as the sole-offender but we could pin much blame on the exterior blockers as well. West Virginia offensive players seemed to take running plays off, including soft and missed blocks. The offensive line was clearly tentative and out-of-sync. It was a true blocking disaster.
If WVU has any hope of leaving Columbia with a win, the blockers have to find a way to block.
2) Kelly Bryant has to throw more than he runs
It’s pretty obvious that Kelly Bryant is a quarterback with something to prove this season. The things he has to prove? He has to show NFL scouts that he can throw the football, and make good decisions, consistently.
Bryant seemed to pass up chances to make plays with his wheels against the aforementioned Wyoming team from last week. He seemed determined to throw the ball.
In fact, he threw the ball 10 more times (48) than he had in any other collegiate game and almost 20 more times his average attempts-per-game as a starter in 2017 (28.4). He also threw for a career high in yards (423) against Wyoming in week one. He completed 31 of his 48 attempts and with the exception of a couple of bad decisions, looked very proficient as a pass-first quarterback.
Based on his seemingly successful week one, why would we want him to run more than he throws?
Because James Madison quarterback Ben DiNiccui was the second leading rusher against WVU in their opener and he kept drives going with his legs. The Mountaineers did make adjustments and eventually did take away the quarterbacks running lane. His rushing total was actually higher than 36 once you account for the four sacks that Mountaineers defense was able to impose on the Pitt-transfer.
WVU has to bottle-up Bryant and keep him from being the true dual-threat quarterback he has shown himself to be in the past.
3) The young secondary must grow up quickly.
Naturally all West Virginia fans, coaches and players would rather see Kelly Bryant unable to run or pass. Based on the youth and inexperience, that is unlikely to happen.
The secondary will be tested on Saturday. They only saw 20 passes last week from DiNucci, they are guaranteed to see at least double that number this week in Columbia.
The more pressure WVU defensive coordinator Vic Koenig can dial-up against the Tigers, the easier it will be the the defensive backfield. While we can expect to see more pressure than we saw last week, there is little doubt that some combination of Keith Washington, Nicktroy Fortune, Sean Mahone, Josh Norwood and Hakeem Bailey will have to come up with some big plays. We are likely to see a couple guys further down on the depth chart as well.
If the young secondary can break up plays WVU stands a chance. If they can force a turnover, the odds increase.
West Virginia at Missouri kicks off at Noon (eastern) on ESPN 2.