For the first time since 1992, the West Virginia Mountaineers will take on the Penn State Nittany Lions in Happy Valley to kick off the 2023 college football season. It’s two programs trending in very different directions. WVU is coming off a five-win season and Penn State has College Football Playoff aspirations. But we all know upsets happen and anything is possible when it comes to PSU.
For Mountaineers fans like myself, it’s praying for some sign of life within the program. Let’s look at why West Virginia should be optimistic heading into their matchup vs. No. 7 Penn State on Saturday night.
We are entering a crucial season and game in the Neal Brown era of West Virginia Mountaineers football. Myself, and most WVU fans, believed Brown would be fired after yet another sub-par season. He’s failed to get WVU over six wins in all of his four seasons as head coach. There isn’t a coach in all of college football with a hotter seat than Brown. Because of that, he enters this game with everything to lose. A poor result would mean the Mountaineers would need to go the rest of the season with near perfection to save Brown’s job. For that reason, this is arguably the biggest game Brown has coached in his entire life. You can’t find this type of sense of urgency anywhere else in college football.
Moving onto the quarterback position, it’s been a revolving door of junk since Brown took over from Dana Holgorsen. The list includes JT Daniels, Jarret Doege and Austin Kendall — three transfers who never worked out. Late in 2022, it was realized Daniels shouldn’t be playing and we got a glimpse into the future in the form of Garrett Greene. Wait, no we got that glimpse in 2021 but that wasn’t enough. That is, what Greene was capable of doing in the run game.
In a November 23-20 upset of Oklahoma, Greene ran for 119 yards on 14 carries with two TDs, also adding one passing touchdown on 12/22 for 138 yards. That was after Daniels was benched in the first half. The Mountaineers won despite allowing Eric Gray to rush for over 200 yards and two TDs. WVU under Brown has always put too much pressure on the QB position, specifically the arm. An offense crafted around the run game with Greene and CJ Donaldson Jr. could be what it takes to get West Virginia out of the basement in the Big 12.
We’re also going to see an entirely new group of receivers, led by NC State transfer Devin Carter. Kent State transfer Ja’Shaun Poke and Marshall transfer E.J. Horton could also be in the mix with recruits Rodney Gallagher and Traylon Ray. There’s a lot of unknowns in that group and we don’t exactly know how they’ll be employed by Brown. This isn’t like my day as a Class of 2012 alum, watching Jock Sanders, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey tear it up.
Looking further into the WVU roster, the lines have always been a strength. The offensive line in particular. As a WVU fan, you’re always expecting strong O-line play with advantageous secondaries. It doesn’t feel like any of these areas have been a major strength during Brown’s tenure. Or maybe it’s just shrouded in inept offenses, I don’t know.
The offensive line returns a few players who saw significant playing time last season, most notably center junior Zach Frazier. If the offensive line can protect Greene and open up running lanes, it could be key to the run game opening up. West Virginia’s run defense wasn’t bad last season, ranking in the top-50. But losses there add another question mark. There should be more trust in the offense and O-line, but in a conference where teams are allergic to defense, WVU has always (sort of) been an outlier.
Which brings us to this massive road game against Penn State. The element of surprise could work wonders. PSU will have some tape on Greene but it’s a small sample size. Also take into account it was Greene in an offense tailored for Daniels. If Brown can adjust the offensive strategy, it could mean leaning into the run. On the road, that’s exactly what you need to do to control the tempo and crowd, which will be a factor at Beaver Stadium.
I’m not holding my breathe that Brown will make the proper adjustments on offense. He is taking over play-calling from OC Graham Harrell, who left after one season to go to Purdue. RBs coach Chad Scott was promoted to offensive coordinator, so one has to think that means more reliance on the run? I never know with this team.
Expectations for Penn State are also super high. Coming off an 11-win season and a Rose Bowl win, the Nittany Lions have to be thinking CFP. Anything short of the CFP would be considered a failure to many. That’s a lot of pressure early on for head coach James Franklin. When hosting a Power Conference opponent or Big Ten team in Week 1, Penn State is almost always in a close game.
Giving this WVU team any type of hope into the second half of this game would be unwise. Brown has mentioned a chip on their shoulder. We haven’t seen it through four seasons but something’s gotta give. If I’m apart of this WVU team and I’m looking at PSU (and all their fantastic fans), I’m forgetting the chip on my shoulder and just getting angry.
Looking at the betting lines, the spread hasn’t really strayed from Penn State -20.5. The over/under is down to 50.5, which tells us a bit more. The books either don’t believe in the WVU offense or don’t believe that PSU is capable of running up the score. Considering West Virginia’s offense has a lot of unknowns, we can assume it’s tougher to project. We know plenty about this Penn State team. With the over/under being somewhat low, that could point to a closer game.
I’m never a fan of betting on my teams. This spread may be the exception to the rule. Last season while in Las Vegas, we jumped on WVU getting a ton of points vs. Pittsburgh and things paid off. I could see a similar cover and loss in heart-breaking fashion for the Mountaineers on Saturday.
I spoke to a friend, fellow WVU alumnus and someone whose sports opinion I value, asking him why to be optimistic going into this game. He couldn’t find a reason why. For me, it’s a little easier to be optimistic because you enter each season thinking “There’s no way it can get any worse, right?”
For a 33-year-old WVU fan who caught the tail-end of the Pat White era, what Brown has done with the program has been tough to watch. There’s not much excitement entering this season so we’ve got to create or fabricate it any way we can. That, and most of what was written above, are the reasons West Virginia should be optimistic going into what appears to be an automatic L by the hands of Penn State in Happy Valley.