WVU solid in opener

If you enjoy group sings, there wasn’t much better than listening to about 40,000 West Virginia football fans doing their version of “Country Roads” Saturday in Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte at the end of the Belk Kickoff Classic. Meanwhile, while “Rocky Top” was a popular hit tune early on those lyrics had long since faded by the end of a long afternoon.

It was clear early the approach by Tennessee was to engage in ball control and limit the number of possession opportunities for a prolific WVU offense. And for most of the first half the strategy kept the game close, as the Volunteers cut the lead to 10-7 after a marathon 17 play scoring drive that used nearly nine minutes of the game clock. After an exchange of punts West Virginia had the ball with 1:52 remaining in the second quarter having run only 17 plays in just four possessions. Although the Mountaineers did manage a field goal at the end of the half to lead 13-7 the outcome still appeared uncertain.

But after an hour long halftime weather delay the WVU offense left no more doubt. In their five second half possessions the Mountaineers amassed 357 yards and four touchdowns. Will Grier and the WVU receivers put on a show, with 275 second half passing yards and 429 overall. Eleven different receivers caught passes, several on outstanding receptions. Although the running game was occasionally spotty it did just enough to keep the Tennessee defense honest and allow Grier adequate time to find his receivers. And having mentioned here struggles last season on short yardage plays, it was good to see the Mountaineers convert two of three third and short attempts running the ball.

There were question marks about the WVU defense entering the game, and certainly many of those will still remain as the season progresses. Tennessee was able to put up only 301 yards and 14 points, and was turned away after a goal line stand by the Mountaineers in the fourth quarter. Admittedly the Volunteers were a bit offensively challenged and changing their offensive philosophy under a new head coach, but overall the results on the defensive side of the ball from the West Virginia perspective were encouraging.

With nearly a full stadium at a neutral site it very much had the feel of a big game atmosphere. While Tennessee is in a rebuilding mode it still has a brand name in college football and any win over an SEC school adds a little luster. It was an enjoyable and satisfying 40-14 victory. The traveling fans from both schools were well behaved and the Tennessee folks were cordial and gracious.

THIS SATURDAY: The home schedule opens with a visit from FCS Youngstown State, the only game on the WVU schedule not against a Power Five opponent. The Penguins have usually been a fixture in the FCS Playoffs but fell off last season to a 6-5 record, and lost its 2018 opener to Butler. They have had a history of being competitive when going against FBS opposition, as Pitt had to go to overtime to defeat them in 2017. But don’t anticipate a Mountaineer letdown in a home opener.