Football, like life, can be funny at times. Just two weeks ago, the Mountaineers were undefeated, ranked among the top offensive and defensive teams in the country and looked like a sure-fire bet to challenge Oklahoma for the Big 12 throne.
After Saturday’s horrid outing against Iowa State, however, West Virginia finds itself in a much different position. A once dominant offensive force looks shockingly meek, and a defense that was a swarming, turnover-forcing machine looks porous and injured beyond effectiveness. Chief among the waterfall of issues that West Virginia is now tasked with is addressing the regression of star quarterback Will Grier’s play.
Grier played indefensibly bad last Saturday against an Iowa State team that had already given up 415 yards and 519 yards, respectively, to conference mates Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. Any indication that the Mountaineers would play like the same team that scorched the field against Tennessee and Texas Tech ended shortly after Grier connected with David Sills V for a score in the first quarter. What followed was an even worse, more uneven Grier than we saw throughout the Kansas game, when the redshirt senior turned the ball over four times.
In the last two games, Grier has been intercepted four times and has lost a fumble. He’s also thrown for five touchdowns, but those scoring plays don’t do much to cover up the fact that he’s looked uncomfortable and uncoordinated. That much was clear against Iowa State, given the amount of dirt on his No. 7 jersey in the second half.
To put it simply, what we’ve seen over these last two weeks is a different Will Grier. The star quarterback who had been in the thick of the Heisman race, nonchalantly cresting 300 yards and multiple scores, has now, almost out of the blue, become a warped facsimile of himself.
This is the same Grier who had become something of a Zen master, who routinely meditates to center his mind. The same Grier who shrugs off any and all references to bringing a Heisman to Morgantown. The same Grier who reputable media publications are already referring to as a pro. I suppose, then, this is what makes what we’ve seen on our TV screens of late so hard to digest.
There are a couple possibilities to consider. First, this could all be nothing more than the type of hiccup that lots of teams experience midway through a long season. There is certainly a precedent set for Iowa State serving as the de facto spoiler in the Big 12. (Ask Oklahoma, Oklahoma State or TCU about that.) Perhaps the trap was just well laid in Ames. It happens. Even players like Will Grier, with all the talent in the world at their fingertips, have bad games.
The second, more deflating possibility is that West Virginia’s weaknesses are starting to burst at the seams as its identity is being called into question. Unfortunately for Grier — the unquestioned face of the program — the emotional auditing starts with him. This offense takes its cues from Grier, and that trickle-down is largely what had West Virginia riding an undefeated streak through five games. You could see the swagger, the moxie, the effortless strut downfield after each big play. Grier, Sills, Jennings and the rest of the offense were comfortable in their work, and they looked damn good at it, too.
For the last six quarters of play, though, that moxie has all but spun out into some dark corner of the universe, and Grier, who we have so often seen bouncing his way toward the sideline with his arms raised, has now adopted a far less inspiring hands-on-hips posture. This team has looked unrecognizable from the team that went out and stomped Tennessee in Charlotte in the first week of the season. I suppose ceding a combined 784 yards and seven touchdowns to Kansas and Iowa State in consecutive weeks will do that.
Has Will Grier lost that all-important “it” factor? After the last two weeks, it’s not an unfair question.
The short answer, at least as far as I’m concerned, is probably not. It’s very easy to adopt a fatalist outlook on college football and assume that even the briefest rough patch is indicative of the sky falling down on a specific program. Just as it’s comfortable to ride the highs, it’s equally easy to wallow in the lows. West Virginia fans know this better than most. The 2007 and 2012 teams should provide plenty of clarity on what I’m referring to.
The sun will shine again on the House of Will Grier. Teams are rarely as good, or as bad, as their last game. And for whatever it’s worth, with 1919 yards and 22 touchdowns already posted this season, Grier is still on pace to post tremendous numbers in 2018.
This is, unmistakably, a rough patch. It’s one game, sure, but it’s a terrible loss. If Kansas served as the shot across the bow, then Iowa State was a direct hit. Will Grier does not presently look like a Heisman contender, and his team does not quite look like the class of the Big 12 anymore, either. This was West Virginia’s mulligan and, unfortunately, winning out is the only likely course to erase the blemish of a lopsided loss to a .500 Cyclones team.
Now, in the midst of an important bye, it’s time to do some soul searching. Whatever wrinkles and deviations from the norm that Jake Spavital has injected into the offensive game plan in recent weeks need to be scrapped. It’s time to get back to basics. Will Grier is at his very best with a clean pocket where he can throw downfield. The offensive line needs some serious evaluation and Alec Sinkfield and Leddie Brown need to get healthy to revive the running game. There are plenty of issues beyond the scope and scheme of the Mountaineer quarterback.
We can extrapolate and theorize about issues inside the locker room and whether or not the team is as bought in as it should be, but what is clear is that Will Grier needs to take hold of the situation and lead from the front.
That means knowing when to abandon the big play and throw the ball away. That means not forcing the issue and fitting the ball into a window that doesn’t exist. That means blending gun-slinging theatrics with veteran, level-headed discipline.
This season, as disparate as everything must feel right this second, is far from over. A busy, treacherous November looms on the near horizon. The opportunities are still there. Take down ranked teams in the Big 12. Unseat Oklahoma. Earn a trip to Dallas.
For better or for worse, this program and its fan base have invested heavily in Will Grier, and whatever happens from this point forward, he will be the man out front. We can only hope that the Iowa State loss serves as a lesson plan on what not to do moving forward, and that these Mountaineers have re-focused themselves on achieving a memorable 2018. As long as Will Grier and the coaching staff continue to believe in themselves and those around him, West Virginia will remain in the fight.
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