The kicking game has been an underserved item in most coverage of WVU's fall football camp, and that needs to be corrected. In addition to the usual admonishments about the importance of special teams, the fact is that WVU will be using a different kicker, punter, snapper and holder than it did a year ago. While attention has been focused on replacements in the secondary, the spotlight on the special teams have been dim.
We've had updates, of course, and have spoken with placekicker Mike Molina and snapper Nick Meadows, and they seem ready for action. Their showings in camp have been good. Billy Kinney, who hasn't kicked or punted in a game yet, wasn't available for interviews, so he's still a bit of an unknown. He showed good hang time on many of his punts, but consistency was a question. In fairness, it's also tough to get a read on that when 95% of the kicks come away from the practice field, but it doesn't remove the issue. Just how ready are all of these new parts?
The mystery is deepened even further when kick and put coverage is thrown into the mix. It gets drilled a lot, and ranges from individual contact, avoidance and closing drills to full team scheme work, but there just aren't many live reps. Coaches are fearful of injuries, so often even they don't know what they have until they see the first game.
The importance of all of these issues is heightened by the fact that Missouri's return game looks very good, and that they return the nation's best freshman punter from a year ago. Oklahoma transfer Alex Ross, who wrecked WVU's chances of winning in 2014 when he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score, could be on the return team as well as in the backfield. Sophomore punter Corey Fatony is a weapon in his own right, and can have a huge impact in flipping the field and negating potential returns. We have an idea of what to look for as the offenses and defenses square off, but this battle could be a very interesting one.
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While WVU's game notes claim that the Mountaineers hold the sixth-longest winning streak in openers at 12, it does not list Missouri as one of the five schools above it. The Tigers' notes claim that Mizzou has won 14 consecutive season openers. That's borne out by College Football Reference, which lists Missouri's last opening day loss as an upset at the hands of Bowling Green in 2001. Somewhere, someone has some bad intel.
Speaking of winning streaks overall, only 11 FBS teams have a current winning streak that stretches three games or more. If nothing else, that's a testament to the parity of competition in the college game.
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As part of our Chalkboard each week, we'll do a history check and select the best, or most meaningful, Mountaineer win over that week's opponent.
With just a pair of wins in five tries against the Tigers, the field isn't exactly bulging with candidates, but we'll go with 1993's 35-3 win in Morgantown. That victory was part of the Mountaineers' second 11-0 regular season in six years, and was the only blowout of a four-game early season stretch that saw tight victories over Maryland, Virginia Tech and Louisville.
Highlights from that game included an 87-yard scoring pass from Jake “The Snake” Kelchner to Jay Kearney, and Mike Collins' 97-yard fumble return for a touchdown, which was initiated when he simply stole the ball out of the hands of Missouri fullback Michael Washington. The latter was one of the only thorns in WVU's side on the day, as he recorded 88 yards on 16 attempts, but Collins topped that figure with his one strip and score. But perhaps the biggest oddity of the day was the fact that brothers Charles (TE) and Vann (DB) Washington scored touchdowns – the only time in recorded Mountaineer history that siblings scored in the same football game.
Side Note: What fullback today gets those kinds of carry numbers? Those look like season totals for most fullbacks in today's game.
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Stats are always two-edged things. What can appear to cut in one direction can often slice in another, and such is the case with the following. The Mountaineers have 14 senior starters on their depth chart and 20 seniors on the two-deep, which is the most in the Big 12. On the surface, that indicates that WVU is an experienced bunch, but at some positions that's not the case. While those players have been in the program a long time, for some, there hasn't be a concurrent wealth of action on the field.
For example, senior receiver Devonte Mathis has only two starts, and limited produtctivity to date. Senior cornerback Nana Kyeremeh has zeros starts. Senior linebacker Justin Arndt, senior defensive back Khairi Sharif and senior offensive lineman Sylvester Townes don't have any either. Senior cornerback Rasul Douglas? None, despite some increasing time over the second half of last year. Then there's transfers Antonio Crawfordand Maurice Fleming. Both have starts for their previous schools, but none for West Virginia.
None of this means that these player won't, or can't play well. The defensive guys might come out on fire and fly around like the 1992 D. The offensive players might see that light switch flip and play at a very high level. What this shows, though, is that you just can't look at the numbers and make a judgment. There's more to it than that.
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There are more special events and promotions for this week's game than any other single contest in recent memory. While every game usually has some sort of event, such as homecoming or recognition of teams and individuals, the 2016 opener is in a league of its own.
It's a Gold Rush, with all fans requested to wear their brightest yellows. They'll find pom-poms on every seat (which is sort of appropriate because the SEC is the home of pompoms in the college football world). Mountaineer great Bruce Bosley's number 77 will be retired. WVU Olympicgold medalist Ginny Thrasher and bronze medalists Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan will be on hand to receive well-deserved accolades. And, oh yeah, there's a football game too.
That's a lot to pack into a game. WVU Senior Associate Athletic Director/External Affairs Matt Wells is going to be a busy man directing traffic on the field during timeouts.