Grier, defense dazzle as No. 17 WVU tops Tennessee 40-14
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — It isn’t in Will Grier’s nature to panic.
So two dropped touchdown passes, a 10-minute drive by the opposing offense and an hour-long weather delay at halftime weren’t about to distract the West Virginia senior quarterback on Saturday.
Grier got his Heisman Trophy campaign off to an impressive start, throwing for 429 yards and five touchdowns as the 17th-ranked Mountaineers pounded Tennessee 40-14 to spoil Jeremy Pruitt’s head coaching debut .
Leading 13-7 at halftime, the Associated Press preseason All-American turned up the heat in the third quarter, connecting on touchdown passes of 33 yards to David Sills, 28 yards to Gary Jennings, and 14 yards to Kennedy McCoy as the Mountaineers opened a 33-14 lead.
Grier, who grew up in the Charlotte area watching Carolina Panthers games and once threw for 10 TD passes in a high school playoff game for Davidson Day, was 14 of 19 for 275 yards and four TDs in the second half .
“He’s such a calm, collected kid that I don’t think all of that affected him in any way,” said West Virginia offensive coordinator Jeff Spavital. “He came out in the second half and just caught fire.”
Grier said the Mountaineers used the extra time at halftime to eat and hydrate — and figure out how to beat the Vols defense.
“It took us a while to get started, but especially in the second half I had a good understanding of what they were doing and what we wanted to do against them,” Grier said.
Coach Dana Holgorsen said Grier settled down nicely in the second half and did a better job of getting the ball out of his hands quicker, instead of trying to scramble.
“That’s the Will we need to see,” Holgorsen said.
Sills picked up where he left off last season when he had 18 touchdown receptions.
Grier’s favorite target had seven grabs for 140 yards and two TDs. Jennings had a big game, too, using his size to catch six passes for 113 yards.
“Will showed out today,” Sills said. “He makes my job easy. I just have to catch it when it is near me.”
Tennessee defensive tackle Shy Tuttle said the Vols simply didn’t come ready to play in the second half.
“We came out with high intensity in the first half. The second half we just didn’t match the intensity and it got away from us,” Tuttle said.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson is determined that his unit will not be the weak link in what has the potential to be a special season for the 17th-ranked Mountaineers.
His guys are off to a promising start.
The Mountaineers limited Tennessee’s offense to 301 yards and 14 points, and Will Grier threw for 429 yards and five touchdowns in a 40-14 rout of the Volunteers on Saturday.
“There were questions people had about our defense and I think our kids responded,” Gibson said.
Sometimes there are no questions at all.
Gibson said when CBS television’s production crew came to meet with him during the week leading up to the game to prepare for the broadcast they only asked one question about his defense. The rest of the questions, he said, were about Grier and what it’s like to face the Mountaineers’ offense in practice.
Gibson relayed that story to his defense before the game as “fuel for the fire.”
It seemed to work.
The Mountaineers swarmed to the ball on the game’s opening possession, limiting Tennessee to minus-15 yards to force a punt on fourth-and-25. It wasn’t all great. West Virginia allowed two long touchdown drives –including one that last nearly nine minutes in the second quarter — but the defense didn’t allow any game-breaking plays.
Tennessee’s longest pass play went for 22 yards.
“We heard a lot about how West Virginia doesn’t have a defense and we took that personally,” said Mountaineers linebacker David Long. “We know what we have and we went out there and showed it. … It’s only the start.”
Make no doubt it, Gibson is thrilled Grier and wide receivers David Sills and Gary Jennings are wearing West Virginia jerseys and he’s not having to spend time game-planning to stop them.
But he added, “people don’t respect our defense for a lot of different reasons.”
He knows part of that is a result of West Virginia’s struggles a year ago, where they allowed 445.5 yards and 31.5 points per game — which is 90th out of 130 FBS teams.
“We’ve put that behind us and we’re moving on,” said Gibson, who returns eight starters on defense.
Head coach Dana Holgorsen called his team’s defensive effort “pretty good,” but was not pleased with its inability to get off the field in key situations in the first half. The Vols put together a 17-play, 78-yard drive in the second quarter that kept Grier and the offense on the sideline for 7 minutes, 57 seconds before scoring on a fourth-and-goal at the 1 to pull within 10-7. West Virginia only led 13-7 at halftime.
“Just the critical downs weren’t what we wanted them to be,” Holgorsen said. “The reason the game was as close as it was in the first half was because of simply that.”
Gibson knows the Mountaineers will face better offenses this season than Tennessee, a team that went 4-8 last season and is in a clear rebuilding mode under first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt.
But he said Saturday was a good start. He liked what he saw, and is optimistic they can help the Mountaineers get to where they want to go this season.
“The one thing about it is I don’t want them to get complacent,” he said. We’re not going to be the best defense in the country after week one, but that’s what we’ll strive to do and we are going to work hard to get there.”