WVU still in contention for Big 12 title game berth
MORGANTOWN — In a year as crazy as 2020 has been, it seems fitting that, despite being mid-November, the West Virginia football team is still in contention for a Big 12 Championship berth.
The team matched its win total from a season ago with a 24-6 win over TCU on Saturday, and the Mountaineers are currently 5-3 with only two games remaining in the regular season. The team is on bye this week, a break after five consecutive weeks of action in a shortened season.
The time off was “much needed” as head coach Neal Brown said in a press conference on Tuesday, with the team’s drastic development over the timespan being a crucial piece to its puzzle of success. Brown noted specific groups and players on the team who have grown, but emphasized the need for continued improvement teamwide.
Offensively, the Mountaineers have been led by running back Leddie Brown who, following his 156-yard performance against TCU, is nearing 1,000 yards rushing on the season.
After WVU’s struggles in the run game severely limited offensive progress last season, Brown admitted that the team’s work in the offseason has paid off, but is not complete.
“I knew we weren’t going to get it completely fixed in a year’s time,” Brown said. “I thought that we would make significant gains, which we have. To be at a championship level, we’ve got to continue that improvement. You look at the statistics right now — we’re not at a championship level of running the football, but we are much improved.”
Quarterback Jarret Doege, who has not thrown an interception in the last four games and ranks seventh in the nation in passing yards, also stood out to Brown for his growth, as well as many members of the offensive line.
Despite undergoing subtle movement during the first few weeks, the Mountaineers’ offensive line has stayed somewhat customary and intact week over week. The starting five, of which two are freshmen, is a young unit, but has drawn praise from Brown for holding its own.
“Our communication is better, I think our chemistry is better,” Brown said. “We’re better up front than we were a year ago. Now, I don’t think we’re at a point where we want to be or where we envision us getting to, but we’re better.”
Defensively, Brown acknowledged the skill set of defensive back Tykee Smith, who was named the Big 12 Conference’s Defensive Player of the Week, as being what the team needs at the spear position.
“At that position, what you’re looking for is a big, physical corner,” Brown said. “I think Tykee can do that. He can go out and play corner in this league and be competitive, and so that’s kind of what we’ve done. Whether it’s offense, defense or special teams, you try to feature your best players and, without a doubt, we feel like he is one of our best football players, period.”
Smith has been the anchor of the Mountaineer secondary and, along with starting cornerbacks Nicktroy Fortune and Dreshun Miller, the group has been a strong factor in allowing West Virginia to have one of the country’s top defenses.
“I think those guys have really improved,” Brown said. “Nicktroy and Dreshun have basically played almost exclusively at the position. I think we’ve done a really good job schematically helping them out, and I think that each of them are improving, especially in one-on-one situations.”
The Mountaineers’ final two games of the season will be against Oklahoma (Nov. 28) and Iowa State (Dec. 5) — two teams that sit near the top of the conference standings. Both the Sooners and Cyclones feature two of the conference’s top three scoring offenses, so a strong performance from the WVU defense will be necessary to keep the Mountaineers’ Big 12 Championship hopes alive.
The status of Josh Chandler-Semedo, one of West Virginia’s starting linebackers, is still unknown as the Mountaineers progress through the bye week.
“It’s too early to tell,” Brown said. “We haven’t had any meetings or anything, so players have had off until (Tuesday) afternoon.”
Brown said he anticipates an update later this week.
Chandler-Semedo was sidelined last week against TCU with a knee injury. Redshirt junior Exree Loe started in his place, and ended the afternoon ranked second on the team in tackles.
The early signing period for college football recruits in the class of 2021 begins in December, and the WVU coaching staff is evaluating how to round out the class.
The Mountaineers currently have 16 commitments accounted for. Brown anticipates saving “one or two” for transfer opportunities in the spring, and says that the team needs to improve its defensive depth.
“You never know what’s going to happen in the portal, so that’s kind of hard to plan for as far as in-house,” Brown said. “Defensively, we’ve got to improve our depth at linebacker and in the secondary. That’s where the emphasis will be as far as finishing this class.”
PASSING OF A FRIEND
Brown spoke fondly of John Schlarman, the Kentucky offensive line coach who died last week after a battle with cancer.
The two had developed a relationship after working together on the offensive staffs at Kentucky and Troy. Brown called Schlarman a “close friend of mine.”
“I really think that how you live your life matters,” Brown said. “He lived with such humility and put others first … I really love that guy, (and) I really feel for his wife LeeAnne and his four young kids, and feel for that football program too. A guy that really meant a lot to them, and rightfully so.”