MORGANTOWN — When Neal Brown decided to leave the comfort of the program he had built at Troy University in Alabama to take on the challenge of picking up the pieces of the program Dana Holgorsen had left behind after defecting to Houston, he knew it would not be easy.
However, Brown didn’t exactly think it would take the same effort as trying to roll a boulder up Law School Hill. Yet, he had to feel like he’d be run over by a boulder when he suffered his first loss as West Virginia’s coach.
On Saturday, the Mountaineers were buried 38-7 by a Missouri team rebounding from an unexpected loss at Wyoming.
While Brown knew he didn’t have Will Grier, David Sills, Gary Jennings, David Long or Yodny Cajuste on his roster anymore, he knew WVU has alway been a proven Big 12 product with an ability to regenerate itself after losing key players. Now, he’s two games in with only one win and only 64 combined rushing yards dealing with an offensive line that hasn’t blocked anyone and a defense that, in the words of defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, missed so many tackles against Missouri “I’d be shocked if we didn’t set a school record today.”
Brown has every right to be upset. However, he is not yet at the point of no return.
“I’m very disappointed, but I’m not discouraged,” Brown said. “I want that to be heard loud and clear: I’m not discouraged.”
It isn’t that he saw anything positive in a first-half that was completely dominated by Missouri, and while he did see a flickering light at the end of the tunnel when Missouri called off the dogs and put in a back up quarterback, he deserves at least that much mercy.
He’s willing to own up to the challenge.
“Until we win one-on-one blocks and until we win one-on-one in coverage and until we break tackles, we’re gonna struggle,” Brown said. “That’s what they’ve done the last two weeks. That’s what next week’s opponent is gonna do.”
Next week’s opponent, North Carolina State, has shut down the run completely in two victories and will come to Morgantown with Tony Gibson — its new defensive coordinator who would like nothing better than to pitch a shutout with negative rushing yardage.
While that may sound impossible, it was exactly the direction in which Missouri was going at the half. Save for a garbage time 46-yard TD pass from quarterback Austin Kendall to George Campbell, the Tigers would have had their shutout and kept WVU to 125 total yards.
“The offense was a mess until the fourth quarter, when we finally got physical for the first time in two games,” Brown said. “Where does it go from here? I’m not sure. Time will tell.”
The game was a case of everything going wrong for the Mountaineers, including what appeared to be a serious leg injury to defensive end Taijh Alston. After the game, teammates all offered support, but it was reported that Koenning indicated it was a serious injury.
Finding help will not be easy.
“We’re a work-in-progress. I’ve been saying that since I got here,” Brown said. “That’s not a negative. It’s what it is. It’s where we’re at. We have some deficiencies. I’ve been pretty open about those.”
Not that he could hide them, certainly not from opponents who have overpowered WVU in each and every phase of the game. Missouri was armed with former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant, who completed 17 of 25 passes for 150 yards and three touchdowns and avoided the rush all day to turn negative plays into positive results for his team.
“He seemed like he was Superman and we were Ant-Man,” Koenning quipped.
The Mountaineers’ deficiencies were visible pretty much right from the start. That included the coaching.
Brown opted to do a pooch kick on the opening kickoff which gave the homestanding Tigers field position right away. Although Darius Stills forced Mizzou to punt with his first of two sacks, the Tigers pinned WVU deep and the Mountaineer offense is not yet equipped to get out of those kinds of holes.
WVU went 3-and-out, and Missouri again took advantage of the field position. After Dante Stills forced an incomplete pass from Bryant with a savage pass rush on third down, Tucker McCann kicked a 43-yard field goal to kickstart the rout.
With no running game, the passing got tougher for West Virginia. Kendall threw his first of two interceptions which ended with Bryant hitting massive tight end Albert Okwuegbunam with the first of two TD catches from 26 yards out and, suddenly, it was 10-0.
The second quarter began with more Missouri dominance, with running back Larry Rountree carrying on five of the first six plays and catching a pass on the other, scoring a touchdown on a 10-yard run.
After WVU missed a long field goal, Mizzou again played roughhouse football. This time, it was Bryant and running back Dawson Downing doing all the heavy lifting until Bryant hit Okwuegbunam with a 15-yard scoring throw.
“He’s one of the best quarterbacks that we’ll see all year, but that doesn’t give us the excuse, though, for our bad tackling,” defensive end Reese Donahue said.
West Virginia moved back into Missouri territory with the clock ticking down on the half and went for the score on fourth down only to have Kendall smothered on a sack that put Missouri in position for one more drive. The drive ended with Bryant tossing his third scoring pass of the game to Barrett Banister from the Mountaineers’ 3 to give the Tigers the 31-0 advantage at halftime.
At that point, the only things unsettled were the final score and what the meal would be on WVU’s charter flight home.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter at @bhertzel.