There are expectations from these Mountaineers, and that doesn’t include scoring just one touchdown in five score zone trips in the first half. It doesn’t include the missed throws and mediocre touch of Skyler Howard at times. And it doesn’t include a lack of punch from the offensive line in the first half that left much to be desired within the running game.
But the things it does include, well, they were bountiful in this harvest. The defense was absolutely stifling, holding Georgia Southern to 224 total yards, including 89 in the first half with zero via the air as the Eagles were shutout for the first time since 1995. That was also the lowest mark in 14 games for the program; Up until the 8:17 mark in the third quarter, GSU quarterback Favian Upshaw hadn’t completed a pass to his own receivers, yet had thrown a pair of picks to WVU. By the start of the fourth, Upshaw had committed five turnovers, including four interceptions. Three went to Karl Joseph, the first time a Mountaineer player picked off three passes in a single game since Vann Washington against Louisiana Tech in 1994.
Joseph was just seven weeks old at the time, but would match the mark more than 20 years later, and get within one of a school record four held by a trio of players – the last of which came in 1969. That was enough for GSU head coach Willie Fritz, who pulled Upshaw with his final stat line reading a 2-of-13 performance for 29 yards and the four interceptions, for a minus-27.4 passer rating. It was the most interceptions ever thrown by a single opposing quarterback against West Virginia, and the first time the Mountaineers had four interceptions in a game since the 2003 win at Boston College.
And that was essentially the icing. Georgia Southern finished with a lackadaisical 195 rushing yards in the first game after leading the NCAA in the category last season. The tackling was excellent, the pursuit, recognition and open field playmaking far above average. There truly wasn’t a single aspect of defensive play that felt lackadaisical or poorly done.
The same was true of special teams. K.J. Dillon’s decisions on punt and kickoff return were on target, Josh Lambert converted his three field goal attempts and all the PATs and the coverage units, and kickoffs from Nick O’Toole were exactly what a weary fan base hoped to see. But there were issues. Issues that kept what should have been a 24-plus point game at the half a two possession affair.
West Virginia’s most glaring issue in the first half was its inability to finish drives. The Mountaineers reached inside the 30-yard line – a proclaimed “score zone” – five times in the first half and were forced into three field goals and a turnover on downs after their initial touchdown. Much of that was their own doing, from a lack of touch from Skyler Howard to an inability to run power football to a somewhat strange passing play selection that was exaggerated by Howard’s struggles.
Part of that could be read as nitpicking, and it likely is in a victory that turned out as solid as this one. But there’s little question West Virginia’s play frustrated head coach Dana Holgorsen throughout portions of the opening half, and the Mountaineers’ inability to convert touchdowns on any more than 20 percent of its trips to the score zone left a feeble Georgia Southern offense – 89 yards, with zero passing, an interception and a minus-33.3 passer rating for Upshaw – in fine position with the first third quarter possession.
Howard missed multiple throws, and West Virginia’s line was unable to gain any push up front as WVU averaged 3.8 yards per rush in the first half, with chunks of that coming from Howard scrambles. But it wasn’t all Howard. Receivers dropped some passes, and there were a handful of miscommunications. In the second half, however, West Virginia rolled to four touchdowns and gained some key mop up time for players like William Crest.
Howard finished 16 of 25 for 359 yards and two scores, and a 211 passer rating. With numerics like those, it’s exceptionally difficult to complain, especially considering this was the first game. A solid 544 yards of offense, receivers in Shelton Gibson and Jovon Durante that provided the big play capability and downfield spark to the tune of 251 combined yards, and a rushing attack that seemed to find its sweet spot as the contest wore on are all reasons for optimism.
The coaches and players all noted there was work to be done, things to tidy and film to review. There are certainly some issues to be ironed. But after week one, and going into a contest with an even more out-talented foe in Liberty, West Virginia looks quite fine early on.