MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia took its 1st major step this year in its climb under 2nd-year coach Neal Brown.
The Mountaineers’ come-from-behind 24-21 victory over 9-win Army last Thursday afternoon in the 2020 AutoZone Liberty Bowl gives them a big boost heading into the offseason.
“I’m very proud of everyone associated with our program,” Brown said after the game. “I thought (the bowl game) kind of mirrored 2020 in a lot of ways, so a fitting way to close out the year.”
West Virginia had just 9 days to prepare for Army’s unique option attack, and the Mountaineers came through with flying colors.
The Black Knights finished the game nearly 100 yards below their season rushing average and had just 1 run of 10 yards or longer (Christian Anderson’s 13-yard quarterback scramble).
Thirty-six of Army’s 59 running plays netted 3 yards or less while averaging just 3.1 yards per carry in a Herculean Mountaineer effort.
“A lot of it was on the fly,” Brown explained. “We tried to play our base defense and not recreate the wheel with just nine days to prepare. Most people who play Army know about them for a minimum of 3 weeks. You know who your bowl opponent is going to be in December and you’ve got about 3 weeks to get ready for them, or you have them on your schedule and you work them some in the spring, summer and fall camp, and that wasn’t the case.”
Offensively, the Mountaineers passed for 280 yards and would have easily exceeded 300 if not for several dropped passes.
The improvement West Virginia made in 2020 was across the board, most notably in the win column where it finished 2 games above .500 at 6-4. Canceled nonconference games against 2-6 Florida State and 2-3 Maryland because of the COVID-19 pandemic could have easily made it an 8-win season, a good indicator where Brown has the program headed.
WVU also made major improvement from 2019 in these statistical areas:
Scoring defense: -8.3 points per game
Scoring offense: +6.5 points per game
Rushing offense: +61.2 yards per game
Passing offense: +28.8 yards per game
Rushing defense: +27.6 yards per game
Pass defense: -80.3 yards per game
Total offense: +90.7 yards per game
Total defense: -107.9 yards per game
Third down conversion %: +5%
Red zone scoring %: +14%
Red zone scoring defense %: -4%
West Virginia is going to finish No. 1 in the country in pass defense, allowing just 159.6 yards per game once final statistics are compiled following this Monday’s national championship game. It’s the 1st time the Mountaineers have led the country in that category since 2001, but that’s misleading because WVU ranked 104 against the run that season.
This year’s run defense is going to finish in the Top 30, surrendering just 131.8 yards per game.
Overall, West Virginia finished 4th in total defense, giving up just 291.4 yards per game - tops among Power 5 football programs.
WVU is also going to finish in the Top 25 in scoring defense, giving up an average of 20.5 points per game (9th among Power 5s), pass efficiency defense (121.52) and also interceptions (11).
Individually, junior tailback Leddie Brown became the 1st Mountaineer player since 2017 to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season and only the 27th ever.
The Philadelphia resident, with 1,010 yards, finished second to Iowa State All-American Breece Hall in the Big 12.
With 1 All-American team yet to be revealed, senior defensive tackle Darius Stills has a reasonable shot of becoming just West Virginia’s 12th consensus All-American. He has already made the Associated Press and The Sporting News 1st teams and was a Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) 2nd team choice.
The only team left to be announced is the Walter Camp All-America squad on Friday.
If Stills does make consensus All-America, he would become only the 3rd born and bred West Virginian to do so. The others are Bethany’s Ira Errett Rodgers and Green Bank’s Bruce Bosley.
Sophomore safety Tykee Smith also had a breakout season, earning 2nd team All-America status on the The Sporting News and FWAA teams, while making the AP All-America 3rd team.
Arizona graduate transfer linebacker Tony Fields II led the Big 12 by averaging 9.8 tackles per game and recently accepted an invitation to participate in this year’s Senior Bowl. Fields and Stills should continue West Virginia’s 13-year-streak of NFL Draft picks later this spring.
WVU also heads into the offseason with a strong early recruiting class that is expected to grow in February and beyond.
Last month, Brown announced a 16-player early signing class that included four 4-star players, and days later the addition of touted in-state offensive lineman Doug Nester, a Virginia Tech transfer who hails from Spring Valley High.
The Mountaineers this year were 1 of 5 Big 12 teams to win their bowl games to conclude a perfect bowl season for the first time in conference history.
“We wanted to make sure (the bowl game) was our 1st step into 2021,” Brown pointed out.
“The point we made is the Big 12 is undefeated in bowl games and the league is not getting any easier. I think we went from kind of the bottom 3rd of the league up to the middle, and now we’ve got to make the bigger jump, which is going from the middle up to the top and compete for a championship.”
Brown said the next 8 months are going to be critical to the continued development of his program. ο