Up until MJ Devonshire’s game-winning interception in the Backyard Brawl, West Virginia quarterback JT Daniels had no blemishes on his stat line.
The first-year Mountaineer, who finished with 214 passing yards and two touchdowns, spoke about his West Virginia debut during Monday’s news conference, giving positive remarks for himself and his teammates.
“I was happy with it,” Daniels said of his performance. “Coach Graham (Harrell) was definitely happy with it in general. We did a lot of good things. We all-around played a good game. Just a few small things need cleaned up, and the score looks different if you clean them up.”
Though neither team held more than a seven-point lead and the game wasn’t officially decided until the final 30 seconds of the fourth quarter, West Virginia had multiple self-inflicted errors that weren’t costly at first, but looking back, may have made a bigger impact than first thought.
Mountaineers receiver Kaden Prather lost a first quarter fumble that led to a Pittsburgh touchdown, as West Virginia combined to record six dropped passes. The Mountaineers also committed 11 penalties for 72 total yards.
This could have stemmed from West Virginia getting nervous after having its season opener be against a rival that dates back over a century, or playing in front of a record-setting crowd of 70,622 people.
Daniels, who has experience being in settings such as this after playing in the Rose Bowl with USC and being on a team that won a National Championship with Georgia, said he enjoys this type of environment.
“Sometimes you listen to how loud it is and people yelling your name,” Daniels said. “But, there’s so much going on, and (being) focused in, it doesn’t really creep into your mind that much. Rivalry games are always a cool atmosphere, though. I would put this game near the top.”
Daniels turned in a strong performance against a tough Pittsburgh defense, completing 23 of his 40 pass attempts, mixing in a number of big plays while dealing with lots of pressure.
The Panthers’ defensive gameplan was simple — blitz heavy and force Daniels to make mistakes. Pittsburgh tallied seven quarterback hurries and three sacks, though two didn’t come until West Virginia’s final offensive drive. The Panthers also had a number of quarterback hits on Daniels, which he knew a five- and six-man pressure was a big part of the scheme against him.
After his hit-filled night, Daniels still said this was not the most times he had been knocked down.
“I never really tracked it, but definitely not,” Daniels said. “If you watch, and we knew this going into the week, the more that teams hurt (Pittsburgh head coach Pat) Narduzzi from the pocket, the more he has sent pressure. It’s not an offensive line thing. It’s part of what I gotta do to adjust.”
Daniels’ performance even drew positive comments from Neal Brown, as the Mountaineers head coach said Daniels played very even-keel.
“I didn’t think a hit or a dropped pass would bother him,” Brown said. “He did really good in-game, being able to tell you what he saw, and that’s not the case with every QB. He threw the ball very well.”
Daniels hit seven different targets with his 23 completions, with Mountaineers star receiver Bryce Ford-Wheaton hauling nine receptions for a game-high 97 yards and both of Daniels’ touchdowns.
The West Virginia coaching staff has given Daniels control of protection, as well as the ability to change the receivers’ routes. Both of Ford-Wheaton’s scores were enhanced by a Daniels fix after seeing 1-on-1 press coverage.
Ford-Wheaton caught a jump ball over Pittsburgh defender AJ Woods in the second quarter for the Mountaineers’ first points, and hauled in another score on a back shoulder fade to open the fourth.
“No one can press Bryce or KP (Kaden Prather),” Daniels said. “One-on-one is the best chance we get to throw a deep ball and make a big play. We capitalized on a lot of big plays, and there were a few that we were really close on. It’s something that gets better playing against good defensive backs and throwing a lot of deep shots.”
With one West Virginia game and already lots of experience under his belt, Daniels is ready to help the Mountaineers get their first win of the season in Saturday’s home opener against Kansas.
He added the opening night loss to Pittsburgh is already behind him.
“Something that’s impressive in the team, that I think matters a lot, is as soon as you watch the final play at Pitt, that’s the last time you talk about them,” Daniels said. “I haven’t seen anyone that’s in low spirits about last week. We put it to bed and moved on.”