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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Our final look-ahead at some of the improvement goals for West Virginia’s football program in 2022 includes special teams and the coaching staff.

Kickoffs: This is a two-parter. On the front end, WVU must improve its start of the play, eliminate the out-of-bounds kicks that popped up at troubling times and produce more touchbacks. Only eight teams of the 130 in Division I had fewer touchbacks than West Virginia’s 12 in 2021, and there’s no better defense against kickoff returns than not allowing one to occur. WVU’s coaching staff did all it could to prevent returns, from pooch kicks to bouncers to different placements, but foes still managed to manufacture 41 returns against West Virginia’s kickoffs.

There will, however, inevitably be some kicks that are returned, and that’s a second area where the Mountaineers need to tighten the strings. While WVU’s average of 21.7 yards per return allowed wasn’t awful, there were a few big runbacks in key situations that boosted the opposition. The Mountaineers were 79th nationally in kickoff return yardage allowed, yielding 891 yards and a touchdown in 2021.

Punt Protection: WVU changed up its punt protection this year, often employing a two-man shield rather than the three-man version of previous seasons. With roll punter Tyler Sumpter behind center, the thinking was to get one more player in downfield coverage more quickly from the line of scrimmage, and allow Sumpter, in effect, to work around any added pressure.

The results there were a mixed bag at best, as on the far negative side Kansas State smothered a Sumpter punt and scooped it up for a score to help power it to an early 14-0 lead last November. WVU simply isn’t good enough to overcome such big plays, and it didn’t on that day in a 34-17 loss. It’s West Virginia that needs to generate such momentum-turning plays in order to move up in the league’s pecking order.

Whether it’s another look at the punt scheme as a whole, quicker getaway on the punt operation or different qualities in the protectors, this has to improve quickly. Coach Neal Brown continually points out the importance of special teams, but that has to be more than lip service. Winning the special teams battle is even more critical for teams that don’t have big advantages and talent, and West Virginia has to commit to playing its best available players if it is going to do so.

Roster Bleed: It’s easy to say that West Virginia needs to address the exodus of players it has suffered over the past 12 months, and in truth it’s not something that is going to be stopped by any actions the coaching staff takes. Freedom of movement is going to be part and parcel of the college landscape for the foreseeable future — at least until the hordes of players entering the portal see, and demonstrate to those behind them, that a new landing spot with more playing time is going to be the exception and not the rule.

For now, though, the Mountaineer coaching staff has to try to figure out why so many departures are occurring in their program and see if there is anything they can do about them. Lack of playing time is always one factor, but are the evaluations being made as to who plays and who sits on target? From the players’ side, is there a lack of confidence in what is being taught at a current position? A lack of trust and confidence that teammates can produce and forge team success? Or, as Neal Brown hinted recently, is this the fallout of some less than ideal recruiting and decisions in his first class at WVU?

One thing for sure is that all of these decisions don’t hinge on one item or aspect of the program. Personality clashes, rushed choices to “test the waters” of the portal and a loss of faith in the improvement plan laid out by the coaching staff could, and likely are, involved for many of the players who have chosen to look elsewhere. It’s probably the most difficult assignment the coaches face this offseason, but it’s one that has to be met successfully if more wins and more success in the program are to be reached.

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Minnesota won the battle in the trenches, and that led the Golden Gophers to an 18-6 victory over West Virginia in the 2021 Guaranteed Rate Bowl Tuesday night at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona.

With the loss, WVU finished its season with a 6-7 record, while UM wrapped up its campaign with a 9-4 mark.

Atmosphere – The Mountaineer football team and the fans who accompanied it to Arizona spent several days enjoying the sights, sounds and entertainment of Phoenix/Scottsdale area. The Guaranteed Rate Bowl is run by the Fiesta Bowl committee, and that group does as good a job as any in the business for the teams, media and fans involved. The days leading up to the game were excellent, though the weather in central Arizona was unseasonably cool (mid-50s) with even some rain. Unfortunately, not many fans from either side were able to follow their respective teams to Phoenix – though admitted the Golden Gopher faithful traveled much better than the Mountaineers’ – as the 47,519-seat Chase Field was half full. Still, the atmosphere was nice, as each university sent scale-down versions of their bands (albeit the Pride of West Virginia went through struggles just getting to Arizona, as its charter flight on Monday was delayed six hours because of mechanical problems). The set-up for a football game in a baseball stadium is a bit unique, but the Diamondback people pull it off fairly well. The roof over Chase Field opened during the pregame to allow four parachutists to drop into the stadium, but then the roof quickly closed again, though not before a few rain drops pelleted those in the stands. Grade: B+

Offense – West Virginia’s three offensive possessions of the first quarter all started deep in its own territory, and it was unable to make any headway on those, netting just six yards in the first period. WVU started to find some rhythm in the second quarter, though, putting together a 12-play, 75-yard march that quarterback Jarret Doege capped off with a TD scramble, which was his first scoring run in two years. The Mountaineer QB completed 18 of 31 pass attempts for 140 yards in the game, despite constantly facing strong pressure from the Gopher defensive front. Tony Mathis did a decent job filling in at running back for opt-out Leddie Brown, finishing with 56 rushing yards on 18 carries. Still, West Virginia’s run game didn’t threaten Minnesota, and Golden Gophers were able to focus on slowing the Mountaineers’ passing attack. WVU tried a variety of things, including ramping up its tempo, but none of the variations made much of a difference. Lacking big plays and continually faced with bad field position, West Virginia’s offense just couldn’t sustain enough drives to dent a good Gopher defense. Grade: D

Defense – Minnesota’s offensive line was highly regarded all season, and it showed why, as the Golden Gophers’ massive front (averages 6-foot-6 and 334 pounds) continually smashed openings in WVU’s defense. UM rushed for 249 yards, though the shortest of those runs may have been the most noteworthy. Minnesota’s 6-foot-9, 380-pound right tackle Daniel Faalele moved into the backfield with UM on the one-yard line. The huge Australia native had not been seen at the fullback position since a spring game three years ago, but he took the handoff Tuesday night and powered his way in for a touchdown. WVU dodged a couple other Gopher first half scoring opportunities when UM missed a short field goal and then turned the ball over on a fumble. A third-quarter Charles Woods interception helped keep the Mountaineers within shouting distance, but just barely. Even given those breaks, the WVU defense had a hard time holding up against the size, strength and experience of the Minnesota offensive line. Grade: D+

Special teams – West Virginia’s special teams didn’t do anything extremely harmful, but they also didn’t make any real positive plays. In a game where both the Mountaineer offense and defense needed some help, WVU’s special teams didn’t provide an impact. Grade: D

Coaching – Without their top running back and their top three tight ends, the Mountaineer coaches tried a lot of different things. They speed up the offensive tempo and used offensive lineman Nick Malone and defensive lineman Akheem Mesidor as blocking tight ends on multiple occasions. Defensively they constantly shifted the alignment of their fronts. In the end, though, it came down to the formula that always decides football games. The team that blocks and tackles the best wins, and on Tuesday night in Phoenix, that was definitely Minnesota. Grade: D

Atmosphere: Manhattan is a flat version of Morgantown — a nice, mid-sized college town that is a little ways from urban areas. Manhattan is a two-hour drive from Kansas City and an hour from the state capital of Topeka. The area’s flat topography allows for excellent tailgating opportunities in the large parking lots that surround Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

Every time WVU visits The Bill, it seems the stadium has undergone major upgrades; this time it’s a $50 million addition called the Shamrock Zone, which adds 10 new luxury suites to the south end and is directly connected to basketball’s Bramlage Coliseum.

Temperatures were a chilly 25 degrees when the tailgating began Saturday morning, but that didn’t stop a good, though not great, crowd of 43,932 fans from showing up. They were rewarded, as the sun warmed the plains of central Kansas, bringing the day to a comfortable 50 by game’s end. It was a nice afternoon for college football. Grade: B

Offense: West Virginia’s offense actually moved the ball (182 yards in the first half and 345 for the game), but it was just five of 14 in third-down situations. That failure to convert on third downs resulted in WVU finding points on just one of its first seven possessions. It wasn’t just third-down conversions that caused the Mountaineer offense problems, though. By halftime, WVU was trailing 17-3, and while it tried to mount a comeback in the second half, the hole was too deep.

West Virginia’s issues began early, as a Jarret Doege pass bounced off Winston Wright’s hands on the second play of the game, resulting in a K-State interception that eventually turned into a touchdown drive. A chop block penalty by the Mountaineer offensive line later in the first quarter squashed another promising drive, and a Leddie Brown fumble in the fourth quarter pretty much put the final nail in WVU’s coffin.

It was that way all afternoon for West Virginia’s offense, which had some good moments but matched most of those positives with negatives. Grade: D

Defense: The Mountaineers limited K-State to 119 yards of offense in the first half and 299 for the game, but mistakes in all three phases allowed the Wildcats to score 34 points with limited yardage output.

KSU’s three scoring drives in the opening 30 minutes covered 55 yards for a touchdown after an interception, zero offensive yards for a TD after a blocked punt and 18 yards for a field goal as the result of the inability of WVU’s offense to get out of bad field position.

West Virginia’s defense was put in some bad situations, but it also missed some opportunities to turn the game around. A very ill-advised VanDarius Cowan late hit/targeting penalty wiped out a Mountaineer interception that would have given WVU the ball inside the K-State 20. West Virginia corner Charles Woods also let a would-be INT flip through his grasp. In addition, K-State converted a huge fourth-and-seven in the fourth quarter to keep alive a drive that eventually resulted in a TD after WVU had grabbed the momentum in narrowing the lead to 24-17.

The Mountaineer defense did a number of good things, but it failed in its chances to make game-changing plays. Grade: C-

Special teams: K-State blocked a punt, returning it seven yards for a TD. West Virginia hadn’t had a blocked punt returned for a touchdown since the Don Nehlen era (1998 by Virginia Tech). Add in a missed field goal by normally dependable Casey Legg and a 64-yard KSU kickoff return to start the second half, and it was a dark day for WVU’s special teams all across the board. Grade: F

Coaching: As is usual with Neal Brown’s team, he had plenty of new wrinkles this week, including a flea-flicker, a shovel pass, two-back sets and new defensive alignments. Window dressing is nice, but it alone doesn’t win games; fundamental football does, and West Virginia failed in that area, as it had bad penalties, dropped passes, missed takeaway opportunities and much, much more.

Those are generally player-based errors, but the coaches have to share in their failure to correct those mistakes, which have been all too prevalent this season. Grade: D

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Oklahoma State’s defense dominated West Virginia on Saturday at Mountaineer Field, limiting WVU to 133 total yards in a 24-3 OSU win.

Atmosphere: With sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-50s, it would be hard to find a better college football afternoon in November than what those at Mountaineer Field enjoyed Saturday. Add in a pregame flyover by three Army Blackhawk helicopters, which was especially appropriate on Military Appreciation Day, as well as the recognition of WVU great Major Harris, whose No. 9 was retired during an in-game ceremony, and it was simply a wonderful atmosphere all the way around.

The only disappointment was the crowd size (50,109) fell short of optimum. Grade: A-

Offense: West Virginia’s offense started the game with a promising 11-play, 67-yard drive, though it stalled short of the end zone, and the Mountaineers had to settle for a field goal. After that, Oklahoma State’s Big 12-best defense completely bottled up West Virginia for the remainder of the game, allowing it just 69 additional net yards and no further points in the subsequent 54 minutes.

West Virginia could neither run it (17 net yards) or pass it (116 yards) and was able to convert just two of 14 third-down situations. After allowing just one sack in the previous two games combined, WVU quarterbacks were sacked eight times by Oklahoma State for a loss of 75 yards.

Give the Cowboy D credit. It has developed a reputation as an excellent defense, and Saturday it proved to be as good as the hype. OSU’s veteran unit starts nine seniors and two fourth-year juniors, and that experienced group overwhelmed the Mountaineers’ offense. “We didn’t play well,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said of his offense, “but they had a lot to do with that.” Grade: D

Defense: The Mountaineer D had a good start to the game. An outstanding Dante Stills tip and interception stopped OSU’s second drive, and two others sandwiched around that possession ended in Cowboy punts.

OK State found a rhythm in the second quarter, though, scoring a touchdown and a field goal on its final two series of the period to take a 10-3 lead into halftime. WVU yielded two touchdowns in the second half, but one of those came on a short field after a turnover.

West Virginia limited OK State to 285 total yards (182 passing and 103 rushing), but on a day where the Cowboys completely throttled the WVU offense, the Mountaineer D would have needed to pitch a shutout to allow West Virginia to pull out a win. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t nearly a shutout. Grade: C-

Special teams: Isaiah Esdale has done a very nice job returning punts for the Mountaineers this year, but he was unavailable for action Saturday because of an injury. That put Graeson Malashevich in the punt return role. The Spring Valley High grad is normally sure-handed, but he made a mistake in the third quarter, as his muff gave OSU the ball at the West Virginia 26.

Four plays later the Cowboys were in the end zone, capitalizing on the turnover to take a 17-3 lead. The outcome was pretty much decided at that point. Tyler Sumpter’s punting and Casey Legg’s field goals remained good for WVU, but special teams — and football games in general — often turn on big plays, and the Mountaineers had a negative one. Grade: D+

Coaching: Running out of players because of injuries, West Virginia’s coaches tried a variety of tactics in an attempt to find some creases in Oklahoma State’s outstanding defense. Nothing they did worked, though, as OSU was simply better. I’m not sure what a coaching staff can do in that situation. Grade: D+

WACO, TEXAS — The Mountaineers were mauled by Baylor on Saturday, getting blown out 45-20 at McLane Stadium.

With the loss, West Virginia fell to 2-4 on the season and will now try to regroup during an open week before visiting TCU on Oct. 23. Baylor improved to 5-1 and will host future Big 12 member BYU next Saturday.

Atmosphere: This time, Mother Nature overdid it. After wonderful weather for each of WVU’s first five games this season, morning in Waco broke picture perfect. But the sun kept baking central Texas, and the temperature topped out at an oppressive 91 degrees by game’s end.

Baylor’s McLane Stadium is the smallest facility in the Big 12 (capacity 45,140), but it is also the newest (opening in 2014) and, along with TCU's, arguably the nicest in the league. Sitting on the banks of the Brazos, the setting for McLane is outstanding, but Bear fans usually don’t pack the place, and they never have when West Virginia has come to Waco.

Don’t fully believe the announced attendance of 43,569; BU, like most schools, including WVU, lists attendance as tickets sold and not the actual number through the gates. More than a third of the seats were unoccupied at McLane Stadium on Saturday. Grade: C+

Offense: West Virginia’s offense was far from great, but it actually moved the ball with some success. It posted 362 yards of total offense (272 passing and 90 rushing), but Mountaineer receivers failed to adjust their routes a couple times, and those kept WVU from getting big plays on each. One of those Baylor actually turned into an interception.

On a team that has offensive issues, every missed opportunity has big consequences. West Virginia also badly needs to generate some explosive plays. Against BU, it had only one longer than 25 yards — a 53-yard catch by Sam James. Grade: D+

Defense: Baylor receivers spent most of the first half running by Mountaineer defensive backs like it was a track meet matching Olympians against high schoolers. The Bears scored four touchdowns on their first five possessions, jumping out to a 28-7 lead early in the second quarter as BU quarterback Gerry Bohanon connected on passes of 78, 44, 22 and 58 yards in the first half. That was part of his 12 of 17 performance in the first 30 minutes for 272 passing yards and three touchdowns.

West Virginia’s defense didn’t give up more than 250 passing yards in any game last year, but it allowed BU to exceed that mark in the first half alone Saturday. For the game, the Bears end up with 525 total yards (354 passing and 171 rushing).

Unfortunately for WVU, its poor pass defense has been a problem all season, as all five FBS quarterbacks the Mountaineers have faced in 2021 have thrown for at least 220 yards, and four of them have gone over 255. It’s a bad trend for something that was a strength last year. The only positive for West Virginia’s defense is that after a horrendous start, it did respond and get a few stops afterward. It was way too little, way too late, though. Grade: F

Special teams: West Virginia’s special teams didn’t make any major miscues, other than fair catching a punt at the nine-yard line. But it didn’t create any big plays, either. Baylor’s kicking game didn’t allow WVU’s returners many opportunities, but on a squad that is searching for any type of big play, the Mountaineer special teams need to provide one or two in order for WVU to have a chance.

An onside try in the third quarter came close, but in the end, it too failed to provide West Virginia with the big play it badly needed in Waco. Grade: C

Coaching: The disturbing theme is that for the second straight game, West Virginia fell behind big in the early going. The Mountaineer defense in particular was gashed, apparently blind to the fact that Baylor’s big-play receivers were capable of — hey, guess what — big plays. WVU’s coverage usually was soft and porous.

Offensively, the numbers were OK, but the need to use a timeout to avoid a delay of game penalty on WVU’s very first offensive play was an especially bad sign considering the Mountaineers’ clock management issues in other games this season. After the loss, WVU head coach Neal Brown said he was very upset with the referees in that situation, but still, it was an awful way to start, no matter who was at fault.

Another bad West Virginia trend that the coaches need to rectify is penalties. WVU had eight for 70 yards against Baylor, and many of those were costly. Again, the Mountaineers just are not good enough to overcome mistakes, every one of which is magnified. Grade: F

In two seasons under head coach Neal Brown, West Virginia just hasn’t gotten the job done against Texas Tech, losing both matchups, one at eac…