The missing feature was readily apparent, but it was overshadowed in the miasma of missed tackles, poor execution and confused play of the Mountaineers. It did, however, contributed greatly to several of those selfsame shortcomings. It was, as you probably guessed, toughness and physical play.
East Carolina seized the initiative from the outset, and did so by striking the Mountaineers every chance it got. It was apparent on the offensive line, and it was especially apparent on the wide receiver screens run by the Pirates. On those plays, West Virginia usually had at least one, and sometimes two, defenders in position to make the tackle and hold ECU to a minimal gain at best. But on almost every one of those plays, one Pirate blocker totally negated a defender and cleared the way for positive yardage.
The disheartening thing about those plays was the fact that West Virginia's defenders didn't appear to be making great effort to get off the blocks. That's not to imply they were giving up, but it just didn't look like maximum throughput was forthcoming. ECU's blockers, in most cases another wide receiver, stonewalled WVU's corners and safeties when the Mountaineers should have been exploding through the block attempts. WVU was strangely passive for most of the game, and recorded zero big hits in the contest.
Struggles in some of the problem areas WVU has experienced this year were to be expected. A callow secondary and a rebuilt defensive front weren't going to be perfect from day one. But most onlookers probably expected that West Virginia would still play with the same aggressive abandon that has marked its successful history. When that didn't come, frustration mounted.
There may have been at least one contributing factor to West Virginia's hesitancy – confusion. Players that aren't clear on their assignments often react tentatively, if at all. And when they do manage to get in the right spots, they are often not mentally ready to fully commit to their play. The result? Weak hits, a ceding of the initiative that gives even more advantage to the offense.
The lack of aggression and passion wasn't just limited to the defense. It was a whole team malaise. The offense didn't sustain blocks. ECU special teamers ran downfield unimpeded. And perhaps most tellingly of all, when West Virginia came out of the locker room for the second half, it was funereally quiet. Not one word was heard from anyone on the Mountaineer team. Literally. And while rah-rahs and shouting don't mean a team is any more prepared to play, the utter lack of emotion and fire spoke volumes about West Virginia's chances to mount a rally in the second half.
Can these flaws be corrected? The good thing is that they may go hand in hand. More fire and more passionate play could lead to more aggression – and vice versa. The only question is, does this Mountaineer team have those qualities?