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When Tom Herman and his Texas Longhorns walk into Milan Puskar Stadium on Saturday, the West Virginia Mountaineer team they’ll line up against will have a different set of characters than the team that defeated Texas on a Will Grier two-point conversion attempt in 2018.
Since that game in early November, WVU saw three main contributors to its 2018 passing offense (Grier, WR David Sills, WR Gary Jennings) exhaust their eligibility. Previous head coach Dana Holgorsen decided to undergo a rebuild in Houston rather than Morgantown, leaving the Big 12 for the American Athletic Conference. The Mountaineers’ quirky 3-3-5 stack defense also became a thing of the past. Even WVU’s uniforms received an overhaul.
Though Holgorsen is gone, much of what current head coach Neal Brown does on offense is philosophically similar to the previous regime. Both come from the air raid tree, as Holgorsen coached under the father of the air raid, Hal Mumme, at Valdosta State in addition to his time spent on Mike Leach’s Texas Tech staff.
Brown never coached under Mumme or Leach, but instead played for the offensive innovators at Kentucky. Brown also served as offensive coordinator under Tommy Tuberville at Texas Tech following Leach’s firing, utilizing much of the same talent and tactics as “the Pirate.”
Where the former and current head coach of West Virginia differ from their mentors is how they treat the ground game. “I know both coaches have made a big commitment to the run game, where some guys from that tree still believe in the short, quick passes as kind of your run game,” Herman said Monday.
The numbers over Brown’s recent years as head coach bear that out. Since 2016, Brown’s offenses have passed 50 percent of the time. His 2019 offense has passed 50.68 percent of the time. Holgorsen’s last three WVU offenses passed 49.7 percent of the time. Compare that to Leach’s Washington State team, who has passed 74.22 percent of the time in 2019.
The main cogs in that ground attack include Kennedy McCoy (48 carries, 151 yards, 3 TDs) and Leddie Brown (19 carries, 105 yards, 1 TD). Those numbers have come against FCS James Madison, Missouri, NC State, and Kansas. Meanwhile, Texas RB Keaontay Ingram has 295 yards and 3 TDs on 55 carries.
The QB/WR trio that made WVU’s passing offense dynamic last year didn’t have clear replacements waiting in the wings. Sam James, T.J. Simmons, and George Campbell are the only three Mountaineers with over 100 yards receiving this year.
At quarterback, Austin Kendall is 94-of-144 for 871 yards, six touchdowns, and three interceptions. Though not as prolific as Grier, Herman still respects the former OU quarterback’s ability.
“He’s very savvy,” Herman said. “The ball comes out quick. You can tell he understands the offense. He’s fun to watch. He’s a good player.”
In defending the Mountaineers, Texas will be without Caden Sterns, Josh Thompson, and Jalen Green. DeMarvion Overshown might be in that group as well, though Herman said they would know more after practice on Tuesday.
One player who might be back is B.J. Foster, who Herman labeled as “probable” for Saturday’s game. His return could mean Brandon Jones, who has served as the nickel in Foster’s stead, could return to his customary safety position against the Mountaineers.
Foster is one of the team’s best blitzers, while Jones might be the best run defender wearing burnt orange. Having both back won’t put the Longhorns at full strength, but it will put two of their best secondary players back on the field in their normal roles.
That defense will have to travel as Texas looks to put together a similar performance to their last trip to Morgantown, when a stifling defensive effort against a Grier-less team limited the Mountaineers to 14 points. The faces might be different on the blue and gold side, but the style of play may not be too far off from what is used to seeing from WVU.