Mountaineers showing positives, negatives

MORGANTOWN – Mountaineer nation is buzzing.

Every West Virginia fan is talking about how well the Mountaineers competed against No. 2 Alabama in WVU’s season opening loss.

Before fans get ahead of themselves, keep this in mind.

West Virginia still lost the game.

Coach Dana Holgorsen and the rest of his team will be the first one to throw that reminder in your face.

While there are positives to take away from the game, there are also plenty of negatives.

The same problems the Mountaineers suffered through last season emerged once more in the Georgia Dome.

For example, West Virginia had only two three-and-outs during the game. Both came in the fourth quarter.

The Mountaineers allowed the Crimson Tide to convert nine of their 16 third downs into first downs.

Still, Holgorsen liked what he saw.

”The biggest thing from last week that we were happy with on all three sides of the ball was our excitement level to play the game,” he said. ”It was off the charts. Our energy throughout the course of the game was at an all-time high. The effort that our guys played with was exactly what we wanted. I told them Sunday that they set the standard of how they are going to play all year. If they can keep up the effort, energy and that excitement, then we will have a good year. There are a lot of things that we need to correct after game one, as everyone does. The one thing that stood out was how we played, not necessarily the result of the game. If we can play like that all year, then we will win a lot of games.”

If the Mountaineers keep up that high level of play, they’ll have no problems with Towson, who comes into Morgantown Saturday night with an 11-game road win streak.

The Tigers had a season for the ages last year. A veteran-led Towson squad advanced to the FCS National Championship game and won a school-record 13 games, including three in the playoffs, before it fell to North Dakota State in the title game. (The same North Dakota State squad that knocked off Iowa State last week.)

The Tigers began last season with a 33-18 victory against the UConn on the Huskies’ home field, but return only three offensive starters and seven defensive starters from that team.

”They play in a good conference,” Holgorsen noted. ”It’s going to be a challenge for us to step up and play these guys. They’re used to winning, and they’re pretty good.”

While West Virginia is 14-0 all-time against FCS opponents, anything is possible. (Ask the 54,800 fans who just witnessed it in Ames.)

Towson will rely on its run game against the Mountaineers’ 3-3-5 defense.

Former UConn offensive coordinator Rob Ambrose is in his sixth year as coach at his alma mater and will rely on junior Connor Frazier to run the Tigers’ offense.

Last week in their 31-27 loss to Central Connecticut, Frazier threw for 125 yards and a score in addition to running for 103 yards and two scores.

The Tigers’ main threat at running back, Darius Victor, also eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground and averaged 5.5 yards per carry in the season opening loss.

Towson had to replace all five of its offensive lineman as well as its tight end.

”They are returning some skilled running backs, who are a little undersized, but quick,” Holgorsen said. ”They have a good overall team speed. They’ll be multiple with what they do offensively.”

The Tigers do return an experienced defense and will rely on their four-man front to try to slow down the Mountaineers offense.

”Their front is enormous,” Holgorsen noted. ”Their best guy is (Ryan Delaire). The guy can come off the edge. He was their best player last year. He does a great job. They’re pretty basic, and they base out of a 4-3 front. They’re not incredibly multiple with their schemes. They just try to keep the ball in front of them and tackle well. They did a good job of that last year.”

Towson’s defense will have to deal with West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett and receiver Kevin White, both of whom are coming off career games.

Trickett went over 300 yards passing for the third time in his WVU career and finished with a career-best 365 yards, while White had a career-high 143 yards on a career-best nine catches.

Though West Virginia finished with only 28 net rushing yards, redshirt sophomore Rushel Shell showed promise in his WVU debut. The former Pitt Panther carried the ball 10 times for 38 yards.

”(Alabama is) just hard to run against,” Holgorsen said. ”We had about 50 yards in the first half. We pulled it, and threw the screen passes, which technically is a run play. A couple of those plays downfield were run plays – we just pulled it and threw it down that way. It wasn’t a winning performance, but it’s hard to line up and average 5, 6 yards a play against those guys. We could have probably called a few more run plays, but I was happy with what it was. It opened up some of the pass-game numbers.”

On the defensive side of the ball, Holgorsen was critical of the Mountaineers’ defensive line play, saying West Virginia needs more pressure from the guys up front.

”(Alabama quarterback Blake Sims) was more elusive than I thought he was,” Holgorsen said. ”He did a good job of getting away from stuff. What’s more concerning to me is getting some of our more skilled linebackers and safeties to where they can get there. They didn’t finish the play. That’s alarming to me, because we are going to face guys that are elusive.”

In the secondary, Karl Joseph had one of his best games in a Mountaineers uniform as he registered a career-high 18 tackles, while true freshman Dravon Henry made his first start at free safety.

”Dravon had a good game,” Holgorsen said. ”He played well. He was a little bit out of position at times. He was a step slow at times. He didn’t have as much pop.”

The Mountaineers’ return game looked much improved from last season as Mario Alford was named the Big 12’s Special Teams Player of the Week after he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.

Josh Lambert connected on field goals of 20, 42 and 41 yards, while Nick O’Toole had two punts of 50 yards or more.