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Interview with Football Frenemies: West Virginia Mountaineers

How are things going in Morgantown?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 19 Kansas State at West Virginia Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Penn State opens the season with an old regional rival on Saturday night. We talked to Matt Kirchner of our sister site The Smoking Musket about the state of West Virginia heading into the matchup.

It goes without saying that it’s been a tumultuous offseason in Morgantown for the school’s two biggest sports. Bob Huggins is out as the basketball coach, while Neal Brown - he of seven losses in three of his four seasons at the helm - seems to be on the hottest seat in college football. How is everyone holding up?

Wren Baker was introduced as the West Virginia athletic director in January and spent the next six to seven months replacing the women’s basketball coach who his predecessor hired the previous year, dealing with Bob Huggins single handedly imploding his legacy at West Virginia over one month, creating a baseball succession plan as the coach who transformed West Virginia baseball from a program that basically played on a sandlot without locker rooms to one that competes for and wins Big 12 championships announced that he was retiring after the 2024 season. All that, and that’s before you factor in the football coach with unquestionably the hottest seat in the Power Five. Stunningly, no one told Wren during the interview process that Morgantown was built on a some sort of burial ground and somehow even more stunningly, he has not left West Virginia. Brave man. I like him a lot and I think that WVU athletics is in good hands with him at the helm (so long as the booster brigade allows him to do his job).

It’s definitely been eventful and I think it was a nice shot in the arm for the fanbase to finally, after nearly 20 years of being on the defensive and fighting for our seat at the table, be part of a conference that was doing the raiding during the now annual summer expansion war. I have my own opinions about the Big 12 continuing the focus westward in expansion and hope that some of our old friends in the ACC become available in the next five-ish years, but for now I’m happy finally having some stability as the clear (if distant) number three in the new world that starts in 2024.

Let’s start on offense. Penn State is very familiar with a couple new weapons at wide receiver. Devin Carter was briefly committed to Penn State in the portal, while Rodney Gallagher would definitely be categorized as a recruiting battle lost. Who will be playing QB for the Mountaineers and how do those guys figure in attacking Penn State’s defense in primetime?

I think West Virginia fans are pretty excited to see Carter, Gallagher, and another true freshman Traylon Ray though it remains to be seen how much the two freshman play though from all accounts they’ve had great camps and may be ahead of schedule. WVU had to replace the bulk of their touches at WR and did a solid, if not spectacular, job in the portal with guys like Carter and others as well as LSU Tight End Kole Taylor who figures to be a factor in the passing game.

However, if West Virginia is going to buck expecations and put a good product on the field, it’s because they embrace the strengths of their roster and (say it with me) run the damn ball. Garrett Greene is a golden retriever who happens to play quarterback and thrives outside of structure. How well he can actually settle in and throw remains to be seen, but he will make you chase after him and embrace chaos (whether Neal Brown can actually allow a chaotic quarterback to do his thing also remains to be seen and breaking free from some of his control freak tendecies may be the difference between keeping or losing his job). Beyond Greene, West Virginia has a stable of extremely talented RBs led by CJ Donaldson who became an out of nowhere superstar after being moved from Tight End to the RB room in camp last season, Justin Johnson, Jalen Anderson, and freshman Jahiem White, a scat back who the West Virginia coaches are hoping has a similar freshman breakout to Donaldson last season.

If West Virginia is going to compete on Saturday and prove its many doubters (myself among them) wrong, it’s going to be through Greene’s weird it factor (he has a bit of Great Value OU Baker Mayfield to him) and the running game.

In seven losses, West Virginia allowed an average of 42.7 points per game. What has been done to shore up that side of the ball and how do you think the defense will try to rattle a first-time starting quarterback?

West Virginia’s defense was such an out of nowhere black spot last season. In the three seasons before that, Neal Brown’s teams were defined by defenses that did everything they could to keep WVU in games but were hung out to dry by absolutely incompetent offenses. Last year, the trend completely reversed at least in the beginning of the year as West Virginia found itself losing shootouts against Pitt and Suddenly Competent Kansas and got absolutely ripped apart by Texas Tech, Texas, K-State, and TCU. The defense found itself to an extent late in the season as it “salvaged” a 5-7 record with surprising wins over Oklahoma and Oklahoma State but the damage has been done.

West Virginia made defensive back its main transfer portal priority, bringing in five or six new faces who all stand to see playing time and hopefully avoid the absolutely dire coverage busts that led to close early season losses that ended up costing WVU a winning season. They also look to have a little more depth in the defensive line than in years past in terms of playable talent, but no one has a emerged as a standout. They desperately need someone to emerge at there edge rushing Bandit position and at their middle linebacker spot where two freshman Trey Lathan (RS) and Ben Cutter (true) have emerged with very strong camps. The LB position, in particular, is what really scares me against Penn State’s backs.

It’s been more than 30 years since Penn State and West Virginia last played. I know the Backyard Brawl is a huge rivalry, but what is the fanbase feeling about playing against the best football program in a neighboring state?

I was born in 1990 so this is absolutely not my rivalry. The game still matters a ton to those who remember the old eastern independent days, but it’s not one that I have a burning need to play year in and year out. West Virginia scheduled with its heart over its brain after its first few years in the Big 12 left fans dying for its old rivals and the cost of getting teams like Pitt, Virginia Tech, Maryland, and Penn State back on the schedule was 11 Power Five games season after season and a whole lot of non-conference true road games. This will be the third straight season West Virginia opens its season with a true road game against a Power Five team, and even when that team is Pitt or Maryland as opposed to a Beaver Stadium night game, it’s just a tough ask for a team fresh out of game to go into it without a tune up and WVU has lost close ones in the two years prior. Though I can’t talk about losses to Pitt and UMD without at least one mention that Neal Brown, most embattled West Virginia football coach in the modern era, is 2-0 against Virginia Tech. You take the good with the bad.

I love having these games on the schedule, West Virginia *needs* these games on the schedule. It’s important for recruiting that we have games in these spots, both to provide easy travel for families and to let recruits see what Morgantown looks like when Pitt, Virginia Tech, or Penn State comes to town as opposed to Texas Tech or Baylor. It’s different, and it matters. The Big 12 was a necessary evil for West Virginia’s survival but it’s been fun to get some of these games back. They do, however, need to find a balance with the difficulty. It’s not the way the sport is going but I’d love for the Big 12 to downsize back to eight league games so that West Virginia can have a non-conference of FCS, MAC/CUSA/Sun Belt home game, Pitt home/home every year, and a rotating regional rival home and home series (PSU, VT, UMD) on the schedule every year. WVU (and college football as a whole) needs these regional games now more than ever.

What are some things that you’ll be most focused on Saturday night and how do you think this one plays out in the end?

I don’t expect West Virginia to win. Frankly, if West Virginia wins it would be one of the most shocking Power Five upsets in an opening week that we’ve seen in a while. But I want to see West Virginia look like they belong on the field. Neal Brown’s era as HC has sapped a ton of life out of me, but the dude is still head coach and as long as he’s head coach I want him to prove me wrong and make me look like an idiot. Cut out the procedural gaffes that have plagued his tenure, coach like someone who knows he has nothing to lose in Beaver Stadium, be fun and don’t make me feel like I just spent 12 fall Saturdays watching paint dry.

That being said—my hopes are not high that that begins on Saturday but if Brown lets Garrett Greene be Garrett Greene and commits to a running back focused attack rather than his standard milquetoast air raid dreck, I think that West Virginia has a chance to surprise some people this season. It’s just not going to be Saturday. Penn State is too much, too good, too early. 38-17 or something like that sounds just right.

We want to thank Matt for his insight and would encourage you all to check out The Smoking Musket for their thoughts on Saturday’s matchup.