The sun has officially set on West Virginia’s 2016 football season. The Mountaineers won 10 games for just the 9th time in school history, but the nature of some of their losses have many feeling like some meat was left on the bone. We looked good against the bad teams and bad against the good teams, and very appropriately finished 3rd in a down Big XII. Does that make us a good-bad team or a bad-good team? I’m leaning towards the latter. Either way, let’s take a few minutes to reminisce.
You can refer to the article I wrote about him in early December for my full thoughts on the subject, but the numbers speak for themselves. 10 wins this year, over 8000 yards of total offense in his career, 19-9 as a starter. Say what you want about his abilities, but we could’ve done a whole hell of a lot worse. Skyler was the embodiment of our team spirit over the past few seasons, and even though he had some very real and very glaring shortcomings that held both he and our team back, I’m going to remember his career fondly.
Probably the most talented position group on our offense, but didn’t reach their full potential due to injuries and substitution patterns. Let me explain: I grew to loathe our insistence on giving the ball to (or even playing) Rushel Shell. I think he was a bad fit for our offense, and I think his continuous inclusion lowered our ceiling. I feel bad about it, because by all accounts he’s a great dude, but that’s how I feel.
The stats confirm what the eye test has suggested for the past two years: he’s been our least effective runner on a per-carry basis. His 4.4 ypc were a full 2 yards worse than Wendell’s 6.4 last year, and his 4.55 ypc were more than two yards worse than the 6.7 that Crawford, McKoy, and Pettaway combined to average this year. So what happened there? Was he just unlucky? Did the line specifically choose not to block on plays where he got the ball? Or maybe, just maybe, was he not actually that good for our offense?
Think about the teams that have had success running out of the spread. Actually, don’t even strain yourself thinking about other teams. Consider us: over the last 15 years have we had more success with bigger, slower guys as the feature back, or have we looked better with quicker guys who make one cut and go?
Going backwards, we were much better this year with Crawford/McKoy/Pettaway, we were better the two years before that with Wendell vs Shell or Dreamius, the few years before that with Tavon vs Alston or Clarke, before that with Devine. Even the Pat and Steve teams didn’t really take off until we actually got Pat and Steve in there. And it’s nobody’s fault, it’s just the nature of the system. In zone blocking schemes, holes tend to open and close very quickly, so the guys with the best chance to succeed in those systems are always going to be the guys with the physical tools to get through those creases RIGHT NOW. Rushel has never been that guy, but we ignored the 2-3 years of evidence we have to support that conclusion and played him anyways. Didn’t care for it.
Shell aside, I love the other three guys and think they’re as talented a trio as I remember us having. They each give us something a little different, as well: Crawford is lightning in a bottle, McKoy is the versatile, silky-smooth long strider, and Pettaway barrels around and attacks defenders like some kind of bizarro-Karl Joseph. If we can keep them all healthy next year we’ll have a lot to be excited about.
One of the more explosive groups in both the conference and the country, but lacking the consistency (outside Daikiel) to be considered truly elite. We have lots of guys who excel at making spectacular plays, but struggle making the routine ones. Fortunately all but two of them should be back, so I think we can expect continued improvement next year with Will Grier.
Probably the position group that best personified our up-and-down play this year. They started the year well enough, with the 12 sacks and 32 tackles for loss they allowed through October both good enough to lead the conference. However, we seemed to lose our way a bit over the final 6 games. The sacks stayed relatively low (13 total in those 6 games), but the TFL allowed jumped from about 4.6 per game to nearly 7.2. On first glance you might think that some of that can be attributed to our opponents, but when you consider that Okie State, TCU, and Kansas State were all in the first group and Kansas and Iowa State were in the second, that original conclusion doesn’t hold as much weight. Not sure what to think there.
One thing they did do consistently well all year though was run block. We were 25th nationally in yards per game, 31st in yards per carry, and 14th in explosive runs per game. Not too shabby.
After watching the bowl games over the last few days, it’s pretty clear that there’s a considerable gap between us and the elite tier of defensive lines around the country. The group was serviceable. They did what we asked them to do, but I can’t remember one game this year where I came away thinking the defensive line dominated.
A pleasantly surprising unit, especially considering how concerned everyone was with replacing Kwiat and Co. Benton is reliable in the middle, and Arndt and Long were flying around everywhere. They didn’t make a ton of “splash” plays, but they didn’t make too many mistakes either.
The biggest reason our defense had the success it did this year. Douglas and Fleming were excellent on the outside, White was better than expected at the Spur, and Tyler and Harper didn’t hurt us. We finished 35th nationally in interceptions, 32nd in PBUs, and 24th in total passes defended. Not bad for a group with 5 new starters.
The K-State comeback. I was tempted to make this the Texas Tech beat down, but coming back to beat Kansas State for the first time since joining the conference was just too good to pass up. The Wildcats were the second of four home games I missed this year due to weddings (come on, people). I was bummed not only because I know that we have a better chance to win if I attend, but also because I had a hunch that this was the year we were finally going to break the streak, and I wanted to be there for it.
However, through 2 quarters there wasn’t much to be excited about. The first half consisted of WVU doing WVU things and State doing State things, which meant they were leading 13-0 at halftime despite being outgained and not really doing anything. At this point I was pacing around this wedding like Holgs after some particularly shoddy refereeing: red-faced, temple veins throbbing, chugging various things, not interacting with people, and being a general curmudgeon. Not a good look.
Thank God for that 2nd half.
We came out and went right down the field on them, and though we only ended up with 3, you could see that there was a general “F this” attitude on our sideline that hadn’t been there before. We’d simply seen that movie too many times, and weren’t about to go through it again. As we began to impose our will, more and more of us snuck away from the reception to watch, and by the time they missed that last field goal there were fully 50 people huddled together in the hotel bar. There’s nothing more certain to draw the ire of significant others than this exact situation, but there we were nonetheless. That tells you everything you need to know about how big of a win that was.
The first half of the Oklahoma game. November 19th, 2016 had all the makings of being one of the special nights in the history of the program. Night game on national television against the conference big dawg – who we haven’t beaten since joining – for the inside track to a conference title. And the snow. My God the snow. It flurried off and on throughout the day, which was just enough to whet the appetite before it started coming down in earnest about 30 minutes before kickoff. By the time we reached our seats it felt like we were walking around in a snow globe, only the snow globe was filled with the electricity of 60,000 people ready to lose their collective shit together. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life, and I’ve never seen a cooler setting for a football game.
And then the game started.
We forced a punt after 4 plays, and then promptly fumbled the damn thing back to them. They scored. We went 3 and out. They scored. We went 5 and out. They scored. 21-0 bad guys before you could blink. We then had two drives end with fumbles inside their 5, which were of course bookended by two more Sooner touchdowns. By the time we finally punched one in it didn’t even matter. The damage had been done. 35-7 at halftime, and one of the emptiest feelings I’ve ever had watching a football game.
MVP: QB Skyler Howard
See above. An unpopular pick maybe, but the correct one I think. His play defined our ceiling, and we saw what happened on those brief occasions this year that he was unable to go.
OPOY: RB Justin Crawford
Daikiel deserves a mention as our most reliable offensive performer, but the nod goes to Crawford. Simply put, he’s one of the most electrifying dudes to ever don the old gold and blue. Tavon is obviously in a tier by himself, but Crawford has already firmly planted himself in that next tier down alongside guys like White, Slaton, and Zereoue. He went over 1000 this year despite carrying the ball just over 12 times per game, and his 7.3 ypc were 4th in the country for guys with atleast 150 carries (18th overall). He needs to fix the fumbling thing whether he stays or goes, but he’s damn fun to watch with the ball in his hands.
DPOY: CB Rasul Douglas
One of the better corners we’ve had in my lifetime. We saw a few flashes of talent a year ago, but there were no indications that Douglas would make the leap to an All-American level corner and Big XII DPOY candidate. His 8 interceptions led the country and his 16 passes defended were tied for 11th. He also recorded a sack, forced a fumble, and finished 4th on the team in tackles with 70. It was truly a tour-de-force performance, and if he runs well this spring I think he’ll have earned himself atleast a Day 2 grade for the upcoming NFL Draft.
Offensive Newcomer: RB Justin Crawford
See above. Justin Crawford is good at football.
Defensive Newcomers: S Kyzir White and LB David Long
Had to give it to both. Kyzir White’s ascendancy wasn’t quite expected, but it certainly wasn’t as surprising as David Long’s was this year. After all, Kyzir came to West Virginia as the nation’s best JUCO safety, and although he probably established himself as one of our better defenders a bit quicker than expected, we already knew he was going to be good.
Long though… he committed to WVU as a 3-star prospect that ESPN ranked as the 23rd best linebacker in Ohio, and entered this season as a relative unknown after redshirting as a true freshman a year ago. There were whispers throughout the spring that he was coming along nicely and might be able to steal some playing time from Sean Walters, but the dude was arguably our best defensive player by the end of the year. I don’t even think the coaches expected him to blow up like that. Long has an incredible nose for the ball and puts people down with authority, and in the end he just kept making too many plays to take off the field.
By my count, we’re only bringing back 10 starters (7 offense, 3 defense), and that’s barring any unexpected departures. However, we’re also returning 14 key contributors, and should hopefully have 6 more guys back from injury who would’ve been part of one of the previous two groups had they not gotten hurt. We’re not Bama by any means, but I think it’s enough to warrant some optimism, especially considering some of the newcomers we’re bringing in.
Will Grier will provide an immediate upgrade at QB based on pedigree alone, and is even more enticing considering that 9 of the guys I mentioned in the previous paragraph are offensive skill players. We’ll also have David Sills, Steve Smothers, and Mike Harley in next year, so there’ll be no shortage of toys for Grier to play with. The most important thing will be protecting him, and to that end we should be in OK shape, as well.
We lose Orlosky, Pankey, and Matteo, but McKivitz and Bosch will be back, as will guys like Marcell Lazard and Grant Lingafelter who have started multiple games for us. The questions to consider as we move into spring are: can Cajuste return from a 2nd season-ending knee injury in as many years, how quickly will JUCO transfer Kelby Wickline be able to establish himself, is redshirt freshman Matt Jones ready to take over at center, and which (if any) of our talented 2016 commits will be able to work himself into the rotation? I obviously don’t know how any of it’s going to shake out, but I like the guys we have in charge of the decision making process.
Defensively several of our question marks can be found in the trenches, as well. We lose all three starters along the front, including multi-year stalwarts Nwachukwu and Brown, but a bunch of younger guys got time this year out of necessity and didn’t look terrible, with redshirt freshmen Shuler and Shriner playing particularly well. Reese Donahue should be better in his second full year, Jon Lewis will be a 5th-year senior and multi-year contributor, and we’ll also have guys like Jeff Pooler and Xavier Pegues back from injury to challenge for playing time. If JUCO transfer Jalen Harvey is able to come in and give us anything we should be OK.
The second level should be in great shape. Justin Arndt and his team-leading 84 tackles are gone, but Long and Al Benton return, as do Xavier Preston and Hodari Christian. We’ll also get the extremely promising Brendan Ferns back from injury, and his three talented classmates should all be better with a year of college football under their belts. Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism though is the commitment of JUCO stud Quondarius Qualls. Between he and those four 2016 guys I’m confident that we can find atleast a couple who are ready to step into that Justin Arndt spot and be productive, and if that holds true then we’re going to have a very strong group of linebackers on our hands.
On the back end we lose Douglas, Fleming, Harper, and Tyler. Douglas and Fleming will be tough to replace, but the replacements in those other two spots will probably be upgrades. Former freshman All-American Dravon Henry will return to his free safety role after missing this year with a knee injury, and both Marvin Gross and Toyous Avery flashed enough ability this year to make me hopeful we won’t miss Harper too much at the Bandit. We also return the aforementioned Kyzir White at the Spur, where he’ll be looking to build on an excellent debut campaign. The question marks are on the outside, where Elijah Battle and Mike Daniels will be the lone returning contributors. Jake Long will be back from injury, but we’ll need him and atleast a couple more of the young guys to step up if we want to avoid a drop off.
Overall, there’s a lot to be excited about heading into offseason. Will Grier and the skill guys are obviously a big part of it, but more importantly it feels like we’re finally starting to hit our stride in the conference, where even though we’re losing some big names we have experienced, talented guys to take their place. We need some things to go right with regards to developing some depth on the trenches, and we really need to find some cornerbacks, but I actually feel like we have less question marks now than we did at this time a year ago. We won 10 games and almost contended for a conference title this year with a relatively limited QB and 9 new defensive starters; I see no reason why we shouldn’t expect to be right back in the mix in 2017. Let’s go.