West Virginia Tops Missouri 26-11, Takes The Key Season Opener

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - It wasn't smooth, pretty or particularly thrilling. But it was effective.

West Virginia methodically built a 13-0 lead on the hands of wideout Daikiel Shorts and the running of Rushel Shell, then piled on in the second half via a steady dose of the ground game in beating Missouri 26-11 on Saturday.

The win won't be remember in any semblance as one that was much more than satisfying, but it was at least that. The Mountaineers controlled an SEC foe for the better part of the afternoon, albeit with a bit of help from what looked to be a woeful Tigers offense at times. WVU's revamped defense limited Missouri to just three points with the game in doubt points, and got off the field in 14 of 24 third down situations. Quarterback Drew Lock completed just 23-of-51 passes with the lone meaningless score, and the offensive line was corralled and controlled by Tony Gibson's odd stack defense, one that was on the verge of holding a Power Five foe other than Kansas to just three points for the first time in the Dana Holgorsen era.

West Virginia's offense, meanwhile, sputtered at times but did enough in securing the game going into the fourth quarter a contest that wasn't that close in the latter half. After struggling to finish in the red zone and leaving multiple points on the board early, the Mountaineers pieced together their finest drive of the day to open the third quarter and set the second half tone. WVU went 70 yards in eight plays, using Justin Crawford's one-yard scoring run for a 20-3 lead. Quarterback Skyler Howard mixed the midrange pass and run effectively, with completions of 22 and 24 yards surrounded by Rushel Shell carries of 20 and 4 yards, and Crawford's nine-yard rush to set-up the touchdown. 

It showcased what the offense could be, but what it wasn't consistently enough. Missouri kept a deep shell over the top, at at times backed the corners 10-plus yards off the ball. That limited much of the truly vertical game from developing, but it did allow what Holgorsen most wanted to work on, which was the intermediate game. That's where Shorts thrived, eating up chunks against a secondary that seemed unable to contain the senior. Howard, 23-of-35 for 253 yards and an interception, would increasingly involve Ka'Raun White and Shelton Gibson more late, as Missouri simply wore down and had neither the spirit or the sanity to continue to run with the wideouts.

Other takeaways are clear. Justin Crawford (21 carries, 101 rushing yards, 1 TD) has the gear, field vision and burst to be a very high level back. Shell continued to run with a purpose and got behind his pads as needed, but doesn't have the top end speed to break huge runs. The Mountaineers' offensive line was as advertised, and controlled a vaunted UM from four even after Yodny Cajuste was forced out of the game with a right knee injury. The left tackle exited in the second quarter, and never played another snap. That forced back-up Colton McKivitz into the game, and the redshirt freshman was impressive in limiting All-SEC edge rusher Charles Harris to just two tackles, none for a loss.

Harris hit Howard a couple times after the ball was away, but that was the extent of the action for what many assumed would be a game-changing player. Harris never had near the impact expected, and as the game weaned into its latter stages, so did his influence as the Mountaineers ran past, around, and through him at times, while also offsetting his power and bull rush with screens. With two expected starters out, Ron Crook's, front five were phenomenal as West Virginia amassed 494 total offensive yards with an exceptionally balanced 253 passing and 241 rushing. The line also kept the pocket clean for Howard, a focus in the offseason that became even more important when fans caught a glimpse of what might happen should Howard become injured.

In a case of "be careful what you wish for," William Crest promptly entered after a Howard injury and fumbled on his first passing attempt. Missouri recovered at the seven yard line, and seemed intent to get within 13-10 by the break before the defense stood up and Tucker McCann hooked a 24-yard try wide left. Chris Chugunov then got a try on the ensuing offensive series, and threw an interception into double coverage. The stat line to note: WVU's reserve quarterbacks went a combined four plays, with a net minus-four yards and two turnovers.

To say the huddled masses were yearning for Howard would be an understatement. With him, West Virginia had a pulse. Without, it flat-lined with nearly zero execution, and multiple mistakes. Perhaps the most welcome sight out of the locker room was Howard himself, who took to the field and began immediately throwing. The senior then spoke with trainers, and trotted out for the first series that would literally secure momentum for the Mountaineers and start the beginning of the end for Missouri after an eight-play, 70-yard drive for a 20-3 cushion.

That Howard got a rousing hand from the 60,125 in attendance was more than warranted, especially seeing the early alternatives. Sure, the sample size was small. But it was as poor a sample as one could ever recall from a back-up. Chugunov entered with five minutes left and better showcased himself, but if the depth situation - or lack thereof - at quarterback right now remains a question entering the contest with Youngstown State. Any injuries at the position are a major concern of now.

Other observations:

  • Gary Jennings is certainly able to handle the punt return duties from a purely physical standpoint. He has the skills and nerve to make both routine and gritty catches back deep. But the decision making must improve; too many times the wideout took unneeded shots. More of that will eventually result in a fumble.
  • Mike Molina is a solid, steady placekicker. The senior made all four of his tries, the longest a 33-yarder. He totaled a game-best 14 points, and seemed comfortable in his new role as the starter. His kickoffs were also fairly deep and well placed, and often resulted in Missouri taking a knee. The flipside was Missouri's Tanner McCann, who badly shanked a pair of tries that would have hanged the complexity of the game.
  • Justin Arndy more than held up at the sam linebacker slot, especially after noting that Missouri would try to run at him, and that he had to deliver the blows and not simply accept them. Arndt finished with a game-high tying eight total tackles (Antonio Crawford also had eight).
  • Billy Kinney was solid in the punting game, averaging 45.4 yards on five punts. WVU's coverage and return units were also very good, and the kickoff return unit nearly broke two big plays.
  • Antonio Crawford struggled some in coverage, but that was as much trying to hold up for 4-5 seconds than it was his coverage skills. Missouri ran several slow developing plays, including some drag routes, and many of those worked because of the lack of immediate pass rush.
  • Kyzir White is as advertised. The rangy, 6-3, 215-pound spur made plays all over the field. He offered major support in the run game, controlled quarterbacks on sprint outs and limited the pass effectively.
  • West Virginia has its power runner in Eli Wellman, it's speed in Crawford and a dependable, durable blend of each in Shell.
  • The defense had a goal of no more than three touchdowns allowed. It smashed the mark, allowing none until the final 1:49 of the game after Missouri recovered an onside kick. The Tigers might have rang up 462 yards of offense, but they truly only threatened WVU's first team defense on two drives, and came away with points just once. For an SEC team to run 100 plays and score just 11 says both something about the futility of Missouri and the ability to consistently execution by the Mountaineers.

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