MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There have been a lot of crazy stories flying around Big 12 country over the last few days. (This is not one of them.)
Eventually, the teams will line up and play football. West Virginia is scheduled to open Big 12 play against Oklahoma, one of the two programs nearing a rumored exit from the league. When the time comes to finally compete again, how will the Mountaineers stack up with the conference’s top teams?
The Sooners are once again the Big 12’s preseason favorite, while Iowa State is picked to finish second. Texas and Oklahoma State are next in the league’s preseason poll, but both teams are facing their share of question marks on offense following the departures of Longhorn quarterback Sam Ehlinger and Cowboy running back Chuba Hubbard.
West Virginia is picked to finish sixth in the Big 12, but head coach Neal Brown is optimistic that this is the year the Mountaineers can break back into the league’s top tier. To do that, they’ll have to win close games.
“That’s the thing that’s different about this league than any other. There hasn’t been as much separation — there’s more parity, I guess is the better way to say it,” Brown said. “To win in this league, you have to win close games.”
Brown is 11-11 in two seasons as the head coach of the Mountaineers, and nine of those 22 games have been decided by seven points or fewer. WVU has been solid in those one-score games, winning five of nine, but its record in Big 12 games decided by one score is 3-4.
Last season, West Virginia was 1-2 against Big 12 opponents in one-score games. Its lone victory came in double overtime against Baylor, while it suffered narrow losses at Texas Tech and Texas. The Mountaineers were triumphant in a fourth one-score game against Army, winning 24-21 in comeback fashion in the Liberty Bowl.
Because of that “parity” in the league, Brown thinks the Mountaineers might play in even more close games this fall.
“You may have six to eight close games on your schedule, and so it’s difficult,” Brown said. “The margin for error in this league is really, really small.”
So, how can the Mountaineers ensure they come out on top in close games in the future? Success will likely be tied to how effectively WVU can run the football, according to Brown.
The Mountaineers manufactured one of the nation’s worst rushing attacks in Brown’s first season, but improved drastically in 2020. West Virginia increased its season rushing average by more than 60 yards per game in year two, and produced a 1,000-yard rusher in Leddie Brown.
Despite that growth, WVU still ranked eighth in the Big 12 in rushing offense last season. In addition, a clear trend emerged: the Mountaineers were unable to run the ball effectively in all four of their losses, failing to crack 100 rushing yards in any of those efforts. Meanwhile, WVU broke the century mark in five of its six overall victories, with the exception coming the in the bowl game against Army.
To turn close games in to wins — and climb in the conference standings — West Virginia’s ground game will have to excel in key moments.
“If we want to be competitive at the top of the league, we’ve got to go from average to good. How do you do that? Well, you’ve got to be able to run the football when the defense knows you’re gonna run the football,” Brown said. “I think if you look at the really successful teams, they’re able to run the football in short-yardage situations, they’re able to run the football in goal line situations, they’re able to run out the game in a four-minute situation. We haven’t been able to do some of those things yet.”
Building depth at running back is something that has been a focus for WVU this offseason, and it could be the key to late-game success on the ground. While Leddie Brown averaged 101 rushing yards per game, he was banged up for the final third of the season. With former backup Alec Sinkfield gone, the coaching staff is looking to redshirt sophomore Tony Mathis Jr. and redshirt freshman A’Varius Sparrow to step into that role.
If one or both players can prove himself as a reliable back, that could help keep West Virginia’s star ball carrier fresh for late-game situations.
“I think that’s a step for us. We’ve gotta develop depth at that running back position,” Neal Brown said. “We’ve gotta be diligent about using Leddie. We wanna still continue to get him a high number of touches, but we’ve gotta get some of those in less-contact situations where he’s still fresh into the fourth quarter, and we’ve gotta be able to make some adjustments within a game that can free him up later in the fourth quarter.”
West Virginia kicks off the 2021 season in six weeks.