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Ludwig: Can WVU Football Really Climb With Continued Setbacks?

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Every ounce of momentum that West Virginia head coach Neal Brown had built over the last couple of weeks just went spiraling down the mountain the Mountaineers are allegedly climbing. Is that fair? Maybe not. Is that the nature of college football? Of course.

It’s not necessarily that WVU lost to the No. 11 team in the country Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium. It’s the way in which it came about, and the reversal of all the progress made over the last couple of weeks.

WVU’s defense played well enough to hang with Oklahoma State, but one of the worst offensive performances in a long time — punctuated by special teams gaffes — led to a completely one-sided game that looked even worse than the 24-3 score indicated.

In a must-win game against TCU in Fort Worth, Tx. two weeks ago, WVU did what was needed to win. Jarret Doege played a solid game, Leddie Brown got going with 111 yards on the ground and three touchdowns and the Mountaineer defense limited the Horned Frogs to just 10 points.

A stretch of play against ranked opponents in Iowa State and Oklahoma State gave WVU the chance to prove that the climb was still actually happening, and there was bonafide progress against the Cyclones! Doege played perhaps his finest game in Morgantown, Brown eclipsed the century mark for the second straight game and, best of all, the offensive line was the foundation that the offensive explosion was built upon in a 38-31 win.

THAT was supposed to be the WVU offense this season, the alleged Doege progression seemingly showing itself as the offensive line gelled and not only created lanes for Brown but allowed Doege to sit back in the pocket and make good decisions.

The Oklahoma State game showed the extensive cracks in WVU’s foundation.

Of course, Oklahoma State is a good team. The Oklahoma State defense was flying around Saturday, wreaking havoc upon the WVU offensive line, but WVU did itself no favors.

The inexperienced WVU offensive line took a step in the right direction against TCU and Iowa State, but the unit took a punch in the mouth over and over and over against Oklahoma State. The exotic looks dialed up Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles left the unit on their heels the entire game.

Doege was sacked eight times, Brown managed just 24 yards on 10 carries and the offense as a whole mustered just 133 yards — 63 of which came on WVU’s first offensive possession. It was an embarrassing display in which it’s hard to truly highlight any positives.

Quarterbacking Miscues Aren’t Limited to the Starter

Brown’s two-quarterback set usage has been dubious all season long, and that only continued against Oklahoma State.

Doege was solid on WVU’s first drive, and Garrett Greene made a well-timed appearance on a 1st-and-5 call that picked up 10 yards on a scramble and moved the Mountaineers into the red zone. WVU didn’t convert with a touchdown, but a Casey Legg field goal was a solid start.

A 3-0 lead was held deep into the first quarter, and Dante Still completed a dominant drive with an uber-athletic play of knocking a pass out of the air and corralling his deflection into an interception in plus territory. With a game-changing play giving WVU excellent field position, Greene trotted onto the field, rushed to the left — with the ball in his right hand — and fumbled any chance of points away with a 26-yard loss.

It was the continuation of poor decision-making, inserting Greene into situations where he had no business making an appearance. Greene is a talented runner, most of the time, but if WVU isn’t going to test what his arm could be, what’s the point?

Greene is a quarterback. If he’s going to be a quarterback, you have got to see what he’s capable of doing. Yes, Greene is most suited as a runner, but through NINE games, there is no indication of Greene’s passing ability. Even when Doege was given a seat toward the end of the game against the Cowboys, Greene exclusively ran the ball. If Greene cannot throw the ball, stop putting him into the game.

And even if Doege is the best option, which at this point, is clearly true, it’s not very reassuring. When given time in the pocket to sit back and progress through his reads, as was the case against Iowa State, Doege excelled. Doege was borderline unplayable against Oklahoma State.

With the offensive line being beaten down by the Oklahoma State defense, Doege’s recognition and playmaking were exposed. Doege completed 15-of-22 attempts for 109 yards and an interception. Look, the Cowboys’ defense is legit, but Doege’s processing in the face of pressure severely declined. He missed reads, missed on open receivers and suffered through a game in which he clearly was thinking about the hits dolled out upon him.

It’s clear by now that Doege, while able to excel in the perfect situation, is what he is. Greene isn’t going to suddenly be inserted into the lineup and have the playbook opened for him, he’s purely a situational ‘quarterback’ at this point in his career.

So, long story short, WVU is stuck with nowhere to go.

A Wasted Effort From a Stellar Defensive Unit

Oklahoma State mustered just 285 yards of offense, a season-low for the Cowboys, against WVU, but the 24 points were possible from OK State controlling the field position battle all game long.

Oklahoma State’s touchdown drives started from their own 47-yard line, coming off a WVU three and out in the second quarter, the WVU 26-yard line, coming off a muffed punt from Graeson Malashevich, and the WVU 45-yard line, courtesy of another three and out — helped by a delay of game call in which the Mountaineers watched the game clock instead of the play clock.

When the three touchdowns come from inside WVU territory, or just outside of it, there isn’t much to do. The WVU offense left the defense out to dry, despite an inspired defensive effort that allowed the Mountaineers to hang around for three quarters.

And after the WVU offense left the defense out to dry for much of the 2020 season, the Oklahoma State effort isn’t the first flop this season. WVU’s offense wasn’t good enough against Maryland or Oklahoma this season — two games in which the Mountaineers could’ve produced and helped to win.

It’s yet another WVU defense that is good enough to win games, but the offense — at least against Oklahoma State — was entirely inept.

Are Two Wins in Three Games Enough?

For WVU to become bowl eligible, the Mountaineers have to win two of three against Kansas State, Texas and Kansas. Even if WVU is able to pick up wins against two of three, is sneaking into a low-tier bowl game the standard now?

Is the climb about being blown out against legitimately good teams and winning enough against games to just manage a bowl game? Toward the end of Year 3 under Brown, the climb thus far has been more about maintaining the status quo of winning just enough games to sneak into a bowl game.

Yes, Brown’s 2022 recruiting class should land some names that help contribute in the future, but with two seasons of excellent defensive play wasted by offensive ineptitude, it’s hard to look toward any progress at this point.

With two seasons of climbing toward last-second bowl games in the books, can WVU weather another?

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