Many have compared new WVU football coach Neal Brown’s persona to that of College Hall of Fame coach Don Nehlen.
Personally, I think he reminds me more of the cerebral John Beilein, now the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, albeit in different sports.
Yet on Saturday, Brown’s coaching reminded me of another basketball coach: Bob Huggins.
I remember Huggins’ first season in Morgantown, when he tried to mold mostly Beilein recruits to play man defense and run his offense. Finally, though, after losing three of four with Syracuse on deck, Huggins allowed the Mountaineers to revert, to play the 1-3-1 zone, to do what they did best.
Now, Brown is doing much the same, moving parts, trying different things, some because of injury, but some, well, just because. And on Saturday it worked to the tune of a 44-27 win over North Carolina State.
It’s quite a turnaround for the Mountaineers, which lost 38-7 on the road to Missouri.
“You can’t continue to do the same things,” Brown said Monday. “As coaches, just because we had success in the past doing certain things… You have to adapt. It’s not about what we’re most comfortable with or what I’m most comfortable with, it’s what the kids do the best. You keep trying until you find things that work.
“I think we found some things Saturday.”
Brown and offensive line coach Matt Moore went with redshirt freshman Briason Mays at center. They went with redshirt freshman James Gmiter – who used to be a defensive lineman – at left guard. They went with junior college transfer and sophomore John Hughes at right guard. What they found was better communication. Better effort. And a little surprise.
“I thought [right guard and redshirt junior] Chase Behrndt played his best game of the season by far,” Brown said. “He was critical in some of our big run plays. He strained. I thought he played physical. He was as big a factor in our turnaround as anybody.
“Gmiter made his first start. He played a little in the first game… I thought he fared very well.”
Brown was also happy with the other first-time starters. Also, huge guard Mike Brown will back back from illness against Kansas. Standout Josh Sills is questionable with a shoulder injury.
The hope is WVU is emerging with seven or eight viable offensive linemen rather than six.
Huggs would be proud.
Notes, quotes and thoughts:
- Mike Brown’s return won’t be the only spark for WVU, which will head to Lawrence, Kansas, this week. After a one-game suspension, lightning receiver Tevin Bush is back.
“His suspension is up,” Brown said. “He’ll be back with the team [Monday]. He violated some team rules, paid the price and will be back.”
- WVU’s resurgence is all the most stunning when you consider the Mountaineers are last in the Big 12 in in total offense, rush offense and defense as well as scoring defense and next-to-last in scoring offense and pass efficiency,
- The crowd on Saturday (57,052) was very nice, considering WVU’s slow start to the season. And Neal Brown said it helped restore the team’s confidence.
“We prepared a lot better during the week, so I knew we had a chance,” Brown said. “We’re such a young football team. We did not play well at all against Missouri. We really challenged our guys. We had more physical practices a week ago – and they responded. We played with more of an edge. We blocked better. We tackled better.
“I thought our energy was great. We fed off the crowd. We had an outstanding crowd.”
- Personally, I’d like to see Brown go with a healthy Leddie Brown at running back and used Alec Sinkfield as a changeup. Whatever the case there, though, WVU’s ground game finally woke up to the tune of 173 yards. Brown said the running backs “ran the ball harder and were more decisive.”
- Why did Brown order a kneel down on the PAT after WVU’s final score? “We use an analytics company,” he said. “It gives you different scenarios to end the game. That put us up 17. At that point, an extra point does us no good. There’s no difference in a 17- and 18-point game. But the worst-case scenario is the extra point is blocked and [N.C. State runs] it back. Now it’s a two-possession game and you bring on the ability of an onside kick. It may be unorthodox, but it makes a lot of sense.”
- And finally…
- Aside from WVU’s non-conference win over North Carolina State (and state native Tony Gibson’s defense), Kansas won at Boston College, Kansas State won at Mississippi State and Oklahoma won big at UCLA.
That led to some Big 12 honors. WVU’s Sam James was the newcomer of the week. K-State’s Malik Knowles was the special teams player of the week after returning a kick 100 yards for a score.
Also, the performances led to some nationwide kudos. The Big 12’s non-conference record is now 21-5 and the win percentage leads the nation at 80.8. The league also has the best winning percentage among Power 5 leagues against each other (60) at 6-4.
I did like Brown’s response, though, when a reporter asked if it was a “landmark statement week.”
“No,” said the coach. “I thought there were some quality wins. I don’t know if I’d go so far as saying it was a statement weekend. But there were some quality wins. The Big 12 has handled itself very well.”
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