The Mountaineers are set to welcome the East Carolina Pirates after a short week of preparation and one of the most emotional season openers in school history. Saturday’s noon-kick is the home opener, and to help make sure the team doesn’t come out flat after a tough loss, it has been dubbed the annual “Gold Rush” game.
Some of the questions swirling around the Mountaineers in week one have lingered into week two. Yes, Will Grier looked good, but he started slowly. Yes, the defense showed promise, but they made a few mistakes. Who is this West Virginia team? Can West Virginia fans realistically expect to compete for the Big 12 crown? Saturday won’t tell the tale, but Mountaineer fans will be looking for answers.
East Carolina is coming off a big loss to James Madison – a loss Dana Holgorsen “discards” because of the under-appreciated strength of the FCS power. But the Pirates are known to sneak up on Power 5 opponents. In 2008, ECU spanked a 9-4 Mountaineer squad led by Pat White who would finish ranked twenty-third in the final AP poll. Coach Montgomery (entering his second season in Greenville) has some “guys”, as described by Dana Holgorsen in his weekly presser, and the Mountaineers better show up.
DATE & TIME: SAT, SEP. 9, 12:00 PM ET
LOCATION: Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, WV
FORECAST: Mostly Sunny, 67
STREAM: Fox Sports Go
BETTING LINE: WVU -24
Last week was disappointing. West Virginia and Virginia Tech stole the national spotlight on Sunday night with one of the best college football games of opening weekend. So many storylines seemed to be in play for the Mountaineers. They were coming off a ten-win season, renewing a nasty old rivalry, and breaking in a hotshot new quarterback.
Losing to Tech was unequivocally NOT a moral victory. A program who aspires to be what the Mountaineers aspire to be cannot have moral victories. That said, there was some promise out there on FedEx Field Sunday night. Will Grier started hitting his spots in the second half and showed an incredible will to win deep into the fourth quarter. With limited touches, Justin Crawford eclipsed 100-yards rushing. Gary Jennings and David Sills proved to be capable first and second options at wide receiver. Middle linebacker and team captain Al-Rasheed Benton played his best game yet in the old gold and blue. The defense got tired and missed some assignments, but they didn’t look awful by any stretch.
Everything West Virginia hoped to be in 2017, they can absolutely still become. But they’re not there yet. West Virginia’s mental fortitude will be tested Saturday afternoon in front of an all-gold crowd at Milan Puskar Stadium. West Virginia does not have to play its best game to beat this ECU squad, but they need to get better on all sides of the ball. Special teams were abysmal against Tech. They will not beat the Oklahomas and Oklahoma States of the world if they continually start 20 yards further from the end zone than their opponent.They will not beat these teams if their secondary leaves guys wide open at the 5 yard-line. And they certainly can’t rack up penalties like they did last week.
Keys to the Game
Stretch the Field – WR Marcus Simms is coming off a one-game suspension for DUI charges that were eventually dropped. He is the vertical speed option for this Mountaineer offense, something that could have been useful against that stout Hokie defense. OC Jake Spavital proved that, despite his stable of running backs, he’ll let Will Grier air it out. With a speedy Marcus Simms now running down the sideline, West Virginia should be able to open things up for a more well-rounded passing attack.
Keep it Humming – West Virginia’s offense just seemed to get stuck last season. Unfortunately, a bevy of three and outs in their opener makes Mountaineer fans wonder if this will be a lingering issue. West Virginia’s offense is at its best when it is most balanced. WVU needs to continue getting Crawford, McKoy, and Pettaway the ball consistently. The offensive line did a great job giving Will Grier a solid pocket from which to throw, and they’ll need to do it again this week. When this offense gets humming, there aren’t many defenses who can slow it down. If Spavital can get that offense humming, the Mountaineers should make quick work of East Carolina.
Do your job – Special teams was just rough for West Virginia. Punter Billy Kenney has to get some distance on the ball and give the DAWGS some opportunities to make plays on their opponent’s side of the field. The Mountaineers need to pick up some yards on punt returns. I’m not asking for much here, just some solid punts and semi-decent returns. For that to happen, guys have to focus on executing their assignments. Blown assignments seemed to be an issue on the defensive side of the ball, as well. This young defense should continue to gel as guys understand their role and execute the responsibilities thereof.
East Carolina is down a bit. I don’t think they have enough weapons or enough depth to play 60-minutes with this Mountaineer squad. That said, I don’t expect them to roll over. West Virginia just has so much to prove. Some Mountaineer fans still think this team can be special, and a dominant performance against a respected program like ECU will help some of those on the fence see what this team could become. The Mountaineers need to win and look good doing it in their all-gold uniforms and blue helmets. I expect them to do just that. Cue country roads for the home opener.