MORGANTOWN — You knew it would be different, considering the circumstances, but there was literally almost no way to compare West Virginia’s season opening 56-10 victory over Eastern Kentucky to compare not just to last season’s team but to our own sense of reality.
Let us first understand the game was played without fans and 11 West Virginia players, three of them offensive starters.
The fans weren’t there due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The players weren’t there due to suspension.
As it turned out, the fans were missed more than the players, although Jarret Doege, the newly ordained starting quarterback who played a half and a series of the second half, completing 19 of 25 passes for 228 yards and three touchdowns said it was not really something new to him.
“I played in the MAC and at Bowling Green on Tuesday and Wednesday nights,” Doege said with a sly smile. “My family were the only fans there. I could hear my Mom screaming from the stands.”
The announced attendance — which was made up almost entirely by players’ family members — we’re not sure if they counted media and the officials — was 976. While no one was sure when the last time was that less 1,000 attended a WVU game, each of the games in 1919 — the year after the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 forced the season to be canceled — surpassed 1,000.
“We missed about 59,000 of our closest friends,” coach Neal Brown said as he opened his post-game analysis.
The fact that WVU’s total yardage of 624 yards almost reached the attendance number also offered up a difference from last year, especially considering the Mountaineers put up 340 of those yards on the ground and scored four of their eight touchdowns rushing.
All last season they scored only 17 rushing touchdowns.
For the first time since September 23, 2017, at Kansas, WVU had two players score two rushing TDs in a game — Kennedy McKoy and Will Grier. And you have to go back to November 21, 2015, also against Kansas, to find the last time WVU had four touchdowns scored by running. That time it was Rushel Shell III and Wendell Smallwood with two each.
The key contributors in the rushing game were Leddie Brown and Alec Sinkfield, each with 123 yards. Brown used only 10 carries for his yardage and Sinkfield.
But what made it most impressive that the pregame suspensions took starting offensive linemen out of the game — center Chase Behrndt and Junior Uzebu.
That cleared the way for highly touted Zach Frazier, out of Fairmont Senior High, a true freshman, to start and do a smash up job at center and Brandon Yates, redshirt freshman, to move in at tackle.
In all, seven Mountaineers made their first start, Sam Brown filling in for the suspended TJ Simmons, fullback Jackson Knipper, safety Alonzo Addae, who had a huge game which included a spectacular diving interception, bandit linebacker VanDarius Cowan and cornerback Dreshun Miller.
“It was a great day,” said Neal Brown. “Just playing to me was a win. Just playing college football was a win. To win and win big is a bonus. I was probably as relaxed as I’ve ever been on a game day, and it didn’t have anything to do with who we were playing or where we were playing. It was just understanding the feeling of gratefulness.”
It was obvious from the start that WVU was going to win and win big and that Leddie Brown, a somewhat slimmed down and dedicated running back, was a different animal than a year ago.
His first carry went for 38 yards. The first drive took just 1:38 to end in a touchdown, that by Brown, on a 10-yard run.
The next time the Mountaineers got the ball they put together a dominating 11-play drive of 80 yards that ended with Doege throwing a 15-yard swing pass to Leddie Brown for the touchdown.
Then, on the first possession of the second quarter, after Leddie Brown had gained 20 more yards on two carries, Doege went deep and hit the fleet Sam James, who would catch five balls for 72 yards, for a touchdown of 32 of those yards.
By halftime, as Sinkfield began to get involved, scoring once on an 8-yard run, WVU took a 28-7 lead into the locker room and came out ready to put it away, while getting almost everyone who was dressed into the game.
The unofficial count was “at least 70” players, although there were denials that the next man was going to be equipment manager Dan Nehlen, even though there were rumors he was seen dressing out in the locker room as the fourth quarter started.
The second half saw last year’s starting quarterback Austin Kendall play a full quarter and complete 3 of 6 passes and it saw true freshman Garret Greene, a water bug of a runner who recorded 33 yards on five carries, 6.6 per attempt, while also completing three of his first four collegiate passes for 24 yards.
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