Before joining Wheelhouse Creative, I covered college football, among other sports, for 38 years in the Mountain State.
I saw highs like WVU’s national championship appearance in the Fiesta Bowl. I watched Bob Pruett’s teams at Marshall dominate. I was in the locker rooms of some of the great University of Miami teams back in the day.
Yet you learn for the most part – unless your coach is Deion Sanders – there is a climb from irrelevance to relevance. There are steps to be taken.
In the case of WVU, the climb was getting too steep, too long. Those asked to “Trust the Climb” were getting distrustful. Coach Neal Brown’s seat has been scorching in Almost Heaven.
But two things have happened this season. First, we’ve seen the Mountaineers, now 4-1 overall and sitting in first place in the Big 12 at 2-0, take a big step.
They’ve learned how to win through toughness, both mentally and physically. They’ve given West Virginia fans thirsting for wins something to parch their throats.
Victories over rival Pitt and Texas Tech and national championship runner-up TCU. No small feats.
But pretty? Uh, no. There’s been some ugly ball mixed in there. At times I harkened back to my days as a kid running around Fairmont. “Hey Mitch! You’re so ugly you make onions cry. You’re so ugly when you throw a boomerang it doesn’t come back.”
The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel wrote that, “There’s a bit of a smoke-and-mirrors feel to the Mountaineers’ start, given they’re averaging just 19 points per game against Power 5 foes.”
The stats don’t argue much. What at times has been an impressive defense – save for the Penn State game – WVU is tied at No. 41 nationally (335.4 yards allowed per game). The team’s pass efficiency defense is No. 30. The rushing defense is No. 38 (114.8). All solid, but not great.
That offense? No. 95 overall (348.5 yards average). The passing offense is No. 118 (159 average), while the rushing offense is tied at No. 34 (191.8).
But West Virginia is WINNING. It’s finding a way. The team is blocking field goal attempts. It is eighth nationally in fewest penalties all season with 18 for 167 yards. It’s showing some guts. Watching Garrett Greene’s grit last week sort of reminded me of that shown by former TCU QB Max Duggan in their 2022 run.
Now, the next step to be taken is a dominating performance. Can this team put one together – especially offensively against a team other than Duquesne — or will it just grind out some victories this season?
An opportunity awaits in the Mountaineers’ next game against Houston. Yes, the former WVU coach’s team just lost to Texas Tech – a team the Mountaineers defeated – by 49-28. The Cougars lost to TCU – a team the Mountaineers defeated – by 36-13. Heck, Rice beat UH 43-41 and the Cougars barely beat UTSA by 17-14. The opportunity is there.
Also, WVU should be fired up, especially in light of Holgorsen’s statement after leaving Morgantown: “We weren’t going to get high school kids at West Virginia that we were going to win the Big 12 with.”
But that emphatic game, that stamp, is the next step for this WVU team and program.
And after that? The most difficult thing to achieve in college football: the belief, the confidence to win every time the field is taken. That takes a lot, more than I have time to outline in a blog.
But what caught my attention this week is a good start toward that goal. And it came from the man that’s been on the hot seat. It came from the one asking fans to Trust the Climb.
“Excited about where we’re at,” Brown said at his Monday press conference. “4-1, 2-0 in our league and haven’t played our best. I really believe our best football is out in front of us.”
Yes. That’s what WVU fans need to hear. More importantly, that’s what the Mountaineer players need to hear. Keep pushing – hard.
The atmosphere at the Pitt game was beyond cool. Ditto a victory at TCU, which played in last season’s title game.
But in a very Don Nehlen-esque fashion, Brown didn’t hand out balloons and throw confetti on Monday. He didn’t breathe a sigh of relief for his job status.
“We were able to win despite not playing really well,” said the coach of the 24-21 win in Fort Worth. “We played at a high level on special teams; defensively we did some good things in the second half; offensively we played better in the second half.
“But overall, we’re capable of playing much, much better than we did Saturday.”
Of course, there were extenuating circumstances. Safety Aubrey Burks was taken off on a stretcher, although he is said to be OK. Linebacker Trey Lathan was carted off with a season-ending leg injury. A handful of others like Sean Martin, Tomas Rimac and Wyatt Milum all received attention.
Also, QB Nicco Marciole, Brown said, received all the practice reps on Tuesday and Wednesday before suffering an ankle injury. Greene stepped in and the game plan did a “180 on Thursday.”
Yet Brown realizes the time for WVU to improve – and strike – is now, especially with the Big 12, except for Texas and Oklahoma, down.
So the coach is pushing.
“Our discipline was not very good,” he said of the TCU game. “We did some things that are not very smart. We won the game because we strained and we’re tough and our competitive spirit is really, really high, but we have to make huge strides in being disciplined.”
He pointed to a slow start.
He pointed to missed opportunities, even harkening back to the Penn State game.
He mentioned sloppy tackling in the first half.
He said his running backs aren’t breaking tackles or making people miss. He said his receivers are not separating in man coverage.
“We gotta be better,” Brown said. “If we’d practiced that game plan all week, I’d be really, really critical. I’m a little more lenient on our guys because we had to switch… but I’m not necessarily pleased.”
Pushing hard toward that next step.
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Mitch Vingle covered sports in West Virginia for 38 years. Follow Mitch on Twitter at @MitchVingle and be sure to check out the rest of Wheelhouse Creative’s website for your marketing and advertising needs. If interested, call us at 304-905-6005.