West Virginia fans likely looked past Saturday’s matchup as they studied the Mountaineers’ 12-game schedule in the preseason.
Hidden between a pair of rivalry games and an early start to Big 12 Conference play, WVU’s non-conference clash against Towson doesn’t attract many eyes. But after WVU’s first 0-2 start since 1979, that matchup suddenly holds much more weight.
The Mountaineers are clear favorites over the Tigers heading into Saturday’s 1 p.m. ET clash at Milan Puskar Stadium. WVU has never lost to an FCS opponent in program history and took a 54-0 win over Towson in their only meeting in 2014. Sportsbooks aren’t even offering odds for the game.
Regardless of expectations, WVU’s rocky start to the season and a wild first month in college football have the Mountaineers taking this game very seriously.
“I finished my career [in FCS], started my career coaching there, and I very well understand that mentality that’s going to be in that locker room when they come here,” said WVU coach Neal Brown. “This is their opportunity on a national stage to show what they can do, so I get that mentality, but it’s about us. It’s about us getting better and us improving, and finding a way to get a win.”
Rather than focusing on the Tigers, though, Brown and his staff have made sure to make this week about the Mountaineers. Here are some things to watch out for in WVU’s third game of the season when it kicks off on Big 12 Now on ESPN+:
Shoring up the defense
West Virginia’s defense was a glaring issue in its conference-opening loss to Kansas on Sept. 10.
On average, the Jayhawks needed two plays to earn a first down and some change as WVU struggled to adjust to the triple option-style scheme. KU scored 48 points on WVU, the most they’ve put up in the history of the series.
Brown wants to see two major things get better against Towson: alignment issues and 1-on-1 tackling.
The latter is an obvious one on defense and it was a noticeable struggle in both of WVU’s games this season. Brown said his team worked on it before the Kansas game, but “it didn’t get improved.”
WVU’s players also had trouble finding the right alignment against the Jayhawk offense. This means that defenders could have been standing just a foot in the wrong direction off of his assignment.
That foot, however, could be the difference between great coverage and a long touchdown.
“I think when you have a performance like that, you want to evaluate it in all phases, which we have, and we’ve got a good plan, in my opinion, on how to get better,” Brown said.
The head coach also noted that WVU will put some new players on the field, especially some of its younger talents. Sean Martin, a defensive end and Bluefield, West Virginia native, has played well and has earned some additional playing time. Other young stars, like Mumu Bin-Wahad and Jacolby Spells, will see more snaps as well.
“They need to play. They need to play,” Brown said. “Mumu’s going to play more at safety, probably, than [at] corner. Jacolby’s going to play at corner. We’re going to get those guys ready to play. They’re talented, and it’s our job to get them ready.”
The JT Daniels experiment is working
WVU’s new starting quarterback has made quite the splash in two games, throwing five touchdowns and 569 yards so far. He also put up 355 yards against Kansas, the third-highest passing total of his career.
Daniels has been showing a lot of leadership and growing his chemistry with his wide receivers. He had a strong debut against Pitt, but it was tainted by his first WVU interception — a ball that bounced through the hands of Bryce Ford-Wheaton, his favorite target, for a pick-six to hand Pitt the lead.
The “even keel” quarterback has been quick to look past mistakes like these with a simple mantra: “Next play.”
“Next play” turned into next game for Daniels and Ford-Wheaton, as the duo went off for 152 yards and two touchdowns against Kansas.
Daniels is building that chemistry with the whole offense. Kaden Prather, a sophomore receiver, saw his production spike in week two as he made six catches for 79 yards. That brings his season total up to eight receptions for 100 yards — far outpacing his freshman season.
Like Ford-Wheaton’s big season, a big part of his growth is that strong leadership from Daniels.
“It’s big just to know that he hasn’t forgotten about you or anything,” Prather said. “It’s big, but really the whole team. I know when I fumbled, everybody came over and patted me on the shoulder and helmet and told me, ‘Next play and everything’s going to be okay.’”
West Virginia and Towson kick off at 1 p.m. ET at Milan Puskar Stadium, and the game will be shown on Big 12 Now on ESPN+. Don’t miss an all-new episode of The Neal Brown Show at 9 a.m. ET on your local West Virginia Nexstar station, followed by a live hour of Mountaineer GameDay at 10 a.m. ET, the most fun pregame show in West Virginia. A second live hour of Mountaineer GameDay goes live at 11 a.m. ET.