Commentary: Buying/Selling WVU in Game One

West Virginia is busy preparing for Norfolk State, and I'm still busy scratching my head over what happened on Sunday.

There will likely never be a weekend similar to that ever again in college football, where three separate games on two different days were postponed and two-thirds canceled after hours of delays.

It's difficult to figure out what West Virginia did on Sunday against Marshall in its 34-13 win. Sure, there were good things. And, there were a few bad things, as well.

In less than four quarters, here's what I'm buying and selling heading into Week Two.


4 things I'm buying

1. Geno Smith's health and strength

This was probably not a topic discussed enough during the offseason because Smith seemed to have such a solid spring and summer. I was sure keeping an eye on him each time he took a hit against Marshall, though.

Smith looked like a different quarterback on Sunday. He had a bit of swagger that I didn't see in a game before. He was tougher than normal, breaking through three or four potential tackles on the way to stepping up into the pocket and either completing a pass or rushing for a first down.

For a guy who reportedly doesn't like to run, he sure did a pretty solid job of doing so on Sunday. I'd guess that doesn't continue, however, if head coach Dana Holgorsen has something to say about it.

Smith had Jarrett Brown-like ability to break tackles against Marshall. And, if he continues to do that will be a Heisman Trophy candidate by the end of the year (a complete game will help with the statistics, too).

2. Tavon Austin as a returner

I had a feeling Austin, the Mountaineers' starting inside receiver, would be a big-time returner when he took one to the house against Connecticut in his freshman season.

Despite that big-time play, West Virginia featured other players like then-cornerback Brandon Hogan and then-receiver Jock Sanders in the return game. Because of that, the Mountaineers have had only one touchdown on a kick or punt return (Austin's in 2009) since the 2007 season. In 2006, WVU had two touchdowns and hasn't had more than two return touchdowns since the 2003 season.

This year will be different; if you believe what you saw on Sunday. And, I definitely do. Austin is one of the best playmakers in the country, and Sunday was the best example why. He almost dropped a handful of balls on offense, but was still able to make a huge impact on the game despite having an off day.

There aren't many players in the Big East Conference that you can say that about. He's a game changer, and he's finally being used as such.

3. WVU's mental stability

It was just one game, I know, but I learned a lot about WVU's coaching staff and players' mental ability because of the odd circumstances that came with a shortened game and three-hour weather delay.

West Virginia's players had to sit through that delay and try to manage the mindset that they could play at any minute but might have to sit for even longer.

That's easier said than done.

The Mountaineers' coaching staff, in one of the oddest situations that could ever come up, handled the trouble perfectly.

WVU was able, somehow, to keep that momentum from Austin's kickoff return touchdown two hours earlier to score that last rushing touchdown by freshman running back Vernard Roberts and really seal the forfeit victory.

While mental toughness will be more accurately assessed in a close game against Maryland or LSU down the road, the Marshall game was the first test. And, the Mountaineers passed.

4. New offense and its tempo

There's no doubt that the Mountaineers' offense was not at 100 percent against Marshall.

The running game was subpar – or at least the blocking was – and the passing game didn't have that flare necessarily that WVU fans have waited more than nine months for since Holgorsen was hired.

There were bits that really stood out to me on Sunday, thought, and it starts with the fast-paced tempo the Mountaineers used at times against the Thundering Herd.

Outside of the high-flying passing attack, Holgorsen is known around the country as an offensive guru for his offense's ability to work down the field at a quick pace.

While WVU didn't use that pace in every drive, the team's last two touchdowns were scored using that faster pace.

I would expect the Mountaineers to work at a quicker pace as conference play creeps up. It makes more sense, and WVU just looked more comfortable when it went fast.

WVU didn't even finish the game, and it still scored more points than it did in every game but four last year. So, yea, I'm buying in.


4 things I'm selling

1. The defense (right now)

OK, I agree that the West Virginia defense was solid and surprising against Marshall. Now, let's remember for a second and remember that it was the Thundering Herd.

While I believe MU freshman quarterback Rakeem Cato will be a challenge in the future – and could actually make Marshall's program relevant again in Conference USA – he is not going to challenge the Mountaineers defensively in Year One.

To me, there are too many question marks still on defense, and it starts in the front three with the nose tackle position. Jorge Wright started, and Josh Taylor played, but I saw some things that made me notice the loss of Chris Neild.

There's no way to truly grade out this defense against Marshall – and that's why I'm not sold.

There is a possibility that defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel has put together another stunning group, but it won't be known for sure until the Mountaineers take on Maryland in two weeks.

Until then, I'm not sold, and a solid performance against Norfolk State isn't going to change that.

2. Running back struggles

I saw what you did out there on Sunday, and it wasn't pretty. The running game was held to just 42 yards on 26 carries with a whopping 31 yards off negative yardage.

I don't believe the running game is as bad as West Virginia showed against Marshall, and there are a few reasons why.

It was starter Andrew Buie's first career game … and Dustin Garrison's … and Vernard Roberts'. All three had first-game jitters. And that's something that will eventually go away.

In addition, Holgorsen said in his post-game press conference that Marshall tried to aggressively take away the running game. The first-year head coach also admitted that WVU had a few running plays that went straight into a blitzing cornerback or linebacker. There's just no way a lucky or solid defensive scheme against the run is going to allow for success on the ground.

That doesn't mean it won't become successful. If there was a bigger question mark on this team than the offensive line heading into the season, I must be missing something. Now, with one game (kind of) out of the way, there's a standard set and one that must be worked at to obtain.

I expect WVU to have much more success running the football this week and down the road because of that.

3. West Virginia's easy schedule

Heading into the season, I thought the toughest game by far would be against LSU. There's wasn't really another team on the schedule that I thought WVU would struggle against, I thought.

That theory of mine has quickly been debunked, as two teams in particular surprised me in Week One.

South Florida went up to South Bend, Ind., to play a hyped-up Notre Dame team, and, after a rain-delayed contest, the Bulls finally finished out the upset win. It wasn't necessarily the cleanest and prettiest victories, but the Bulls showed they have talent on defense and can execute on that side of the ball. In addition, working through those weather delays proves the team has confidence, experience and focus.

Playing USF in Tampa will be a huge challenge for the Mountaineers, especially in the last game of the season. I bet that game is for the Big East title after what I saw this week from the league.

The other team that made me raise an eyebrow was Maryland, who defeated Miami at home. Terrapins starting quarterback Danny O'Brien will be the best signal caller the Mountaineers will face in the regular season, and Maryland's scheme is pretty solid, as well.

Playing that game on the road will be difficult, especially in a trap game before the LSU matchup.

4. ESPN's credibility

This has nothing to do with the game, and I'm sorry about that. But, it has everything to do with what's right in journalism.

As most of you already know, ESPN reported that a person was struck by lightning while inside Milan Puskar Stadium during one of the three weather delays on Sunday.

Without any more information than that, I made an effort (it took less than 30 seconds), to call MECCA 9-1-1 in Morgantown and asked for a confirmation of the incident.

If it was true, this was something that would create some extreme negative publicity for the University and its Athletic Department. If it was false, I wanted to debunk it and clear up that ESPN "Bottomline" report.

I was told that there was nobody struck by lightning, though there was a definite threat of something of the sort happening.

It's an absolute shame that the University had to put out an official release and statement on the alleged incident. It's also even worse that a State Policeman had to speak to the media following the game.

If the Mike Leach/Craig James/Bruce Feldman situation didn't prove anything to you, this lightning strike debacle sure should.

ESPN is no more credible these days than any random Tweet or Facebook status.


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