MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Discipline. Tough. Smart. Strain.
Those are the principles that Neal Brown has aimed to build the West Virginia football program around. He shows a slide bearing those four words every time he is in front of the players as a team during the week.
“That’s how we want to be described,” said Brown.
Brown describes discipline as a team that doesn’t beat itself with penalties, turnovers, etc. He describes strain as how you play. Toughness has a physical and mental component to it and emphasizes overcoming adversity. Finally, smart entails players being football savvy and aware of game situations.
This year’s team has consistently achieved high marks in two of the four areas in the eyes of its head coach. Strain and toughness are there — physical toughness was one of the biggest points of emphasis all offseason long.
“We’re a tough team, mentally and physically. We’re able to overcome adversity. We’ve proven that in multiple games,” said Brown. “… We’re doing those things. We’re straining, and we’re a really tough team.”
The brand of physical toughness Brown and WVU are deploying this year is a direct result of the personnel strength of the team — offensive line and depth on the defensive line. Takeaways from last season and the depth West Virginia has in both position groups made increased physical toughness a necessity in preparation for this year.
That’s not an option every team has, but this one did.
“I thought it was the only answer for this team,” added Brown.
Brown was impressed by his team’s mental toughness in last Saturday’s win over TCU. WVU players watched two teammates get carted off the field with what appeared to be devastating injuries. Safety Aubrey Burks may return to action later this year. Unfortunately, linebacker Trey Lathan had surgery in Fort Worth and will miss the remainder of this season.
However, the fifth-year head coach did not feel his team played up to the standard in the other two areas against TCU.
“We’ve got to make huge strides in being more disciplined and then just being a smarter team,” said Brown.
Statistically, West Virginia is the most-disciplined team in the Big 12. The Mountaineers have accrued a conference-low 18 penalties through five games, only two of which came in the win over the Horned Frogs. One came right before halftime, which knocked WVU just beyond Michael Hayes’ field goal range.
Brown was also upset his players nearly made a “catastrophic error” by running after the blocked field goal with less than one minute remaining. Had a WVU player touched the live football and not maintained possession, it would have set up TCU inside the red zone and given the Frogs new life with less than 30 seconds to play.
Luckily for WVU, neither instance derailed the Mountaineers in the 24-21 victory.
West Virginia (4-1, 2-0 Big 12) has won four straight games and six of its last eight dating back to last year.
Brown believes the success will create more buy-in, not just to his four principles but to the direction of the program, as a whole. It’s a work in progress, he said, though he also described this year’s team as self-aware.
“We’ve kind of been upfront with them about who we have to be to be successful since the first day of spring practice,” said Brown. “Those four principles, those guys can repeat them.”