Position made the Virginia Tech game

West Virginia and Virginia Tech played one of the best games of the first college football weekend on a national television stage Sunday night, but that was little consolation for Mountaineer fans who endured a tough 31-24 loss. As we mentioned here last week, WVU had won all four of its close games in 2016, but this time it was the Mountaineers who were throwing into the end zone to tie at the end of the game but couldn’t connect.

Both teams were evenly matched, each with outstanding quarterback play. Will Grier, in his first outing at West Virginia completed 31 of 54 passes for 371 yards. Virginia Tech’s Josh Jackson, also making his first start, broke down the Mountaineer defense more with his legs than arm, with 101 yards on just 11 carries.

The difference in the game, however, came down to field position, special teams play, and key mistakes at the wrong time. West Virginia’s average starting field position was its own 21 yard line, never starting better than at the 27. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, averaged starting at its 34. While the 13 yard gap may not seem much at first glance, played out over 15 possessions in is a huge difference. As a result the Mountaineers, despite gaining an impressive 592 yards on the night, were always facing a long field.

The field position disparity came almost entirely from superior special teams performance by the Hokies. Every Virginia Tech kickoff went into the end zone for a touchback. The same wasn’t true for WVU, as on one occasion a long runback with a personal foul penalty tacked on allowed the Hokies to begin at the West Virginia 32, from where they quickly scored. Virginia Tech averaged over 46 net yards per punt, while WVU was at just 36. Thus every exchange of punts resulted in a 10 yard average deficit for WVU. The Hokies did miss a couple of makeable field goals which kept the game within reach.

And then there were the penalties. West Virginia was flagged for 100 yards, which cannot occur against a good team. The most egregious of these happened in the third quarter when the Mountaineers appeared to gain a first down inside the Tech 20 driving for what would have been a tying score. But WVU was called for holding on the play, and then 15 yards were tacked on for an unsportsmanlike penalty on head coach Dana Holgorsen. The back to back penalties meant WVU faced a third and 27 well out of field goal range.

Holgorsen’s over the top sideline antics during the bowl game loss against Miami to end last season bothered many WVU fans. College football is placing an emphasis on sideline infractions and conduct this season, and Coach Holgorsen apparently didn’t heed the warning. His penalty hurt his team and took them out of a scoring chance. Dana has been a head coach now for seven years. It is time to get these issues under control.

THIS SATURDAY: East Carolina averaged about 8 wins per season in the ten year period ending in 2015, but decided that wasn’t good enough and changed coaches. After a good start last season, the Pirates have since lost 11 of 12 games, with a low point coming last week in a 20 point to FCS James Madison. It will be a short week after a tough loss, but the Mountaineers appear to be the superior team in this matchup. WEST VIRGINIA 45 EAST CAROLINA 21.