MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – As if a 24-3 loss to No. 11 Oklahoma State wasn’t brutal enough at this stage in the WVU football season, the game took its physical toll as well.
Both tight end Mike O’Laughlin, who was in a full knee brace on the sideline today, and Nicktroy Fortune were ruled out for the remainder of the season earlier this week. During the game today, Charles Woods was taken to the locker room with an undisclosed injury in the final quarter. Redshirt junior Malachi Ruffin subbed into the cornerback spot without much hesitation.
When West Virginia head coach Neal Brown met with the media following the Oklahoma State game, the picture he painted was of both a mentally and physically exhausted team.
“[Isaiah] Esdale was out,” Brown said. “Bryce Wheaton didn’t practice all week until yesterday. Dante [Stills] is banged up. He didn’t practice all week. The TCU game and the Iowa State game were really physical games. We knew this one was too. You know, we’re not a deep team. Those two games wore on us. I wasn’t blind to it coming in. I knew it. We tried to take care of it when we practice.”
Esdale and Ford-Wheaton’s injuries were news, especially following an Iowa State win that produced 61 and 106 yards on six receptions each, respectively. Brown didn’t allude to a return date, but Esdale didn’t play a single snap against the Cowboys.
Even not practicing all week, Stills continued to make his presence known in a big way. He concluded his participation in the Oklahoma State loss with a pair of tackles and a clutch interception of Spencer Sanders that awarded the Cowboys their first, and only, turnover.
Moving forward, T.J. Banks will fill O’Laughlin’s spot. The redshirt junior chalked up two receptions for 12 yards tonight, and added three receptions for 34 yards in last week’s Iowa State win.
Combatting the cornerback situation didn’t pan out well. Brown said that he would salve the ache of losing Fortune by switching Jackie Matthews and Scottie Young. Matthews left much to be desired, only registering one tackle and one assist; Young played better, ending the night with four solo tackles and one assist, good for the fifth best defensive player on the WVU stat sheet. Swapping the SPEARs and cornerbacks to build depth may present an issue going forward. Based on Matthews’ and Young’s play tonight, it’s cause for concern.
With Esdale out, the next man up into the outside receiver spot is junior Sean Ryan. He didn’t garner any stats against Oklahoma State, so looking to the left side of the field for passing opportunities may be sparse. Mountaineer fans are likely to hear redshirt junior Sam James’ name more often. He notched 46 yards on five receptions against the Cowboys, leading the West Virginia receiving charge.
The Oklahoma State game saw redshirt freshman slot receiver Reese Smith get his third and fourth receptions of the season (16 yards and a five-yard run). He’s played in every game except Oklahoma and Maryland, and Brown could be priming him to get more snaps now that the receiver roster has taken a beating. True freshman wide out Kaden Prather also got time. He’s been backing up Ford-Wheaton, but has played in every game sans Maryland, Virginia Tech, and Texas Tech. He put up season-high numbers against Long Island at the beginning of the season, when he found 33 yards on two receptions.
Whether he’s ready for the challenge of competing with Big 12 cornerbacks remains to be seen, but he, along with the rest of the West Virginia depth, will have to be ready.
Kansas State, Texas, and Kansas still wait patiently for the opportunity to play this West Virginia team in 2021, injuries or not.