There will be no fans permitted to attend West Virginia football’s season opener against Eastern Kentucky in Morgantown on Saturday. But rest assured, there will be plenty of anxious eyes watching.
The game will kickoff at noon and will be televised on FS1.
Months of uncertainty and even more months of anticipation will come to a head as the Mountaineers begin its second season under coach Neal Brown with improvement as the goal.
“It’s finally time for football and reflecting back over the last several months, honestly didn’t know if we’d get to this point at certain times and didn’t know if we’d be able to play,” Brown said Tuesday. “Just really humbled to have the opportunity to coach after everything that’s gone on over the last few months. I know our players … they’re extremely excited to compete as you can imagine.”
A full slate of Big 12 Conference games awaits the Mountaineers starting Sept. 26, but the task at hand is a Football Championship Subdivision squad in the Colonels that was soundly beaten by Marshall 59-0 in Huntington a week ago.
“When you see a score like this it’s hard to think of anything that’s positive other than we made it here safely, and hopefully we get home safely and that’s the reality of it,” EKU coach Walt Wells said in the aftermath of the loss to the Thundering Herd.
At last check, WVU was a 40 1/2-point favorite to win on Saturday, but the intrigue with the Mountaineers stretches far beyond the scoreboard outcome.
The biggest draw, especially for WVU fans, will be seeing how far a team that finished 128th out of 130 FBS teams in rushing yards has come. How cohesive can a defensive unit led by two coordinators (defensive line coach Jordan Lesley and cornerbacks coach Jahmile Addae) be? How will junior quarterback Jarret Doege play after winning two of his three starts at the end of last season?
What about a receiving corps that would seem to be the deepest unit on the team led by a player in Sam James that flashed superstar ability last year? How dominant can the defensive line led by brothers Darius and Dante Stills be after the two combined for 14 sacks last season and after Darius Stills was named the Preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year?
Those questions begin to be answered on Saturday.
“This is a week where it’s about us,” Brown said. “We’re excited to have an opportunity to play. We’re a work in progress. It’s time to play, we’ve practiced long enough. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
And while the progress of that work begins to be shown this Saturday, don’t expect to see anything flashy from the Mountaineers in terms of schemes and play calling. With the COVID-19 pandemic putting teams across the country behind schedule, Brown reiterated that his team is still trying to make up for practice it would’ve normally gotten in the spring and summer.
“I think we’re going to be extremely simple,” Brown said. “We feel like that our base offense and our base defense, we’ve got to continue to be better at that. We don’t have the reps logged that we would normally have logged in a spring or summer.
“We’ve simplified what we’re doing after about two weeks of camp trying to identify what the quarterback was good on offensively and then defensively, what the best front movements were and what our best coverages are in the secondary and really trying to attack what Eastern Kentucky is doing, but also what teams in our future that we will play in late September and in October, what those teams do and to make sure we’re sound and that our guys know what the answers are in our base schemes.”
While fans won’t be in person to see what those base schemes look like on Saturday, they’ll certainly be paying close attention. On Tuesday, Brown made sure to let those fans know that the feelings of disappointment are mutual.
“I want to make sure our fans understand that we’re going to miss them on Saturday,” Brown said. “We’ll be thinking about them and it will not be the same and in a season of a lot of different things and one that is abnormal, that’s going to be the most difficult challenge for our players and the one that is most unfortunate.”