MORGANTOWN — At least for one game — albeit against an undermanned and overmatched opponent — the Mountaineers’ number one point of emphasis in the offseason was a strength instead of a concern.
The running game that WVU has so desperately needed was on full display Saturday as the Mountaineers piled up 329 rushing yards in blistering Eastern Kentucky 56-10 at a mostly empty Milan Puskar Stadium. An official crowd, made up of the families of players, of 976 was announced.
Running backs Leddie Brown and Alec Sinkfield each piled up 123 yards on the ground and combined for five touchdowns to spearhead a running game that helped set the tempo early and salt things away late.
“We were very balanced today,” WVU coach Neal Brown said. “We ran the ball better and I think that’s a credit to the offensive line and a couple of tight ends that haven’t played a lot — Jackson Knipper and Charles Finley did a nice job. Then to have two 100-yard rushers, I felt like Leddie and Sinkfield had nice camps, so to see them get rewarded today was good.”
The Mountaineers posted those totals without two starters on the offensive line, with left tackle Junior Uzebu and center Chase Behrndt — as well as both tight ends on the original two-deep depth chart (T.J. Banks and Mike O’Laughlin) — among 11 players serving a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules. That announcement came around an hour prior to a 12:05 p.m. kickoff.
Also out was starter T.J. Simmons (slot receiver) as well as reserves Zach Davis (offensive line), Zack Dobson (wideout), Isaiah Esdale (wideout), JP Hadley (long snapper), Tariq Stewart (offensive line) and David Vincent-Okloli (cornerback). Those moves thrust a trio of freshmen into the starting lineup, with Zach Frazier getting the nod at center and Reese Smith and Sam Brown starting at receiver.
“They’ll be back with us [Sunday],” Neal Brown said of the suspended players, adding that the reasoning was not COVID-19 related. “I’m not going to get into it, but I love those guys and really believe a lot of them are going to be a huge part of the success we have this year and the success we have moving forward.”
WVU finished 128th out of 130 FBS teams in rushing yards per game a year ago, averaging just 73 per contest. Last season, the Mountaineers recorded two runs that went for longer than 30 yards. On Saturday, Leddie Brown had two of those by himself.
Saturday also marked the first time WVU had eclipsed 300 rushing yards since Dec. 2, 2016 in a game against Baylor, and it was also the first time two WVU ball carriers ran for over 100 yards since Justin Crawford and Kennedy McKoy did it at Kansas on Sept. 23, 2017.
With Leddie Brown’s straight-ahead power runs and Sinkfield’s elusive quickness, the Mountaineers showed a potent one-two punch in the backfield. It’s one that Neal Brown hopes to produce moving forward.
“We put a plan together and it really started in the month of November, about how we had to get better because you’re not going to be a championship program and win at an elite level in the Big 12 unless you can run the ball and start the run,” Neal Brown said. “This is just the start. Just because we did it today doesn’t mean all of the sudden we’ve arrived running the football. But it was a start.”
Meanwhile, junior quarterback Jarret Doege was solid in just a half of playing time, connecting on 19 of 25 passes for 228 yards and three touchdowns. His 8-yard connection to Bryce Ford-Wheaton with just 31 seconds remaining in the second half put WVU up 42-7 at the break and accounted for his last play of the game.
“It was just go out there, prepare and play,” Doege said. “I felt good. We’ve had a ton of practices counting OTAs, camp, walk-throughs, so I think our timing was pretty good.”
Leddie Brown accounted for all of the scoring in the first quarter, capping WVU’s first drive with a 10-yard scoring run and then hauling in a 15-yard touchdown reception from Doege to put the Mountaineers up 14-0.
After James was on the receiving end of a 32-yard touchdown toss from Doege with 12:59 left in the second quarter, EKU scored for the first time in five-plus periods with quarterback Parker McKinney hitting a wide-open Keyion Dixon from 28 yards out to make the score 21-7.
But from there it was all WVU as Sinkfield and Leddie Brown tacked on 8-yard scoring runs leading up to Doege’s toss to Ford-Wheaton just before the break.
James led WVU receivers with five catches for 72 yards. Tony Mathis added 55 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Backup quarterback Austin Kendall and third-string freshman Garrett Greene combined for 67 yards on 6 of 10 passing, with Greene chipping in 33 yards rushing on five carries.
Alonzo Booth led Eastern Kentucky with 45 yards on seven carries with Parker McKinney throwing for 131 yards on 9-of-17 passing.
WVU NOTEBOOK: About the best thing to say about WVU center Zach Frazier on Saturday is that unless you were looking, it was hard to notice he was there.
In a position predicated upon delivering shotgun snaps and blocking, that’s a good thing.
With senior starter Chase Behrndt among 11 players suspended for the game by coach Neal Brown, Frazier was thrust into the starting lineup in his first game with the program after graduating from Fairmont Senior High School in the spring.
In terms of the center-quarterback exchanges, things went off without a hitch during the Mountaineers’ 56-10 win over Eastern Kentucky. Considering WVU ran the ball for 329 yards, Frazier certainly had a hand in some solid interior blocking as well.
“I didn’t think he’d go out and start as a [true] freshman, but I thought he did a nice job,” Brown said. “I like how he’s real level, doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low. I went by the hotel room last night doing bed check and I said, ‘You ready to go?’ [and he said], ‘Yes, sir.’ No blink, no hesitation, he was ready.
“He was going to play today regardless of the suspensions. Now, he wasn’t going to start, but I thought he handled it really well.”
Frazier wasn’t the only true freshman who found himself unexpectedly starting on Saturday. Receivers Reese Smith and Sam Brown also started in their first games with WVU.
Smith caught four passes for 32 yards with Sam Brown catching four balls for 43 yards.
While Neal Brown had already committed to playing a plethora of players on Saturday, several saw the field far sooner than many expected. But put in a tough spot to begin their careers, the Mountaineer youngsters answered the bell, instilling further confidence in their coaches and teammates.
“Those three guys are going to play a lot of football here for a long time and I was pleased they got off to a good start,” Brown said.
In his first game in Morgantown after spending three seasons at Arizona, Tony Fields introduced himself to WVU fans in a big way, leading the defense with 10 tackles (four solo).
Listed as the backup to Dylan Tonkery at the mike linebacker position, Fields flashed plenty of potential and closing speed in consistently clogging up running lanes and running down pass catchers.
That speed and instinct sets Fields apart, and as he continues to settle into the system, Neal Brown envisions even bigger things moving forward at WVU and beyond.
“Really active, he plays with a lot of energy and brings a speed element to defense that we probably haven’t had in my two years here,” Brown said. “He’s still learning what to do but he plays full speed. He loves contact, loves to play and is only going to continue to get better.
“He’s an NFL prospect. He’s going to play in the NFL.”
Also making a defensive impact on Saturday was safety Alonzo Addae, who transferred from FCS New Hampshire in the summer of 2019 and was forced to sit out last season before finally making his debut.
Addae came up with the first turnover of the season for the Mountaineer defense on a diving interception, and he added seven tackles.
But more than anything, Saturday represented a long-awaited return to the field for Addae, who was as or more grateful than anyone simply to be playing.
“It was definitely difficult but at the same time I trusted in the process,” Addae said. “The coaches put me in a position where I was here and continuously growing my skills. It was hard but today I let my emotions just run. I was kind of speechless just to go out there and suit up in a Mountaineer uniform and I’m just thankful.”
QUICK SNAPS: A moment of silence was held just before kickoff in recognition of the battle against social injustice. While Eastern Kentucky’s kick team stood on the field, the entire Mountaineer squad lined the sideline linked arm-in-arm before sprinting out to take the field.
n Fans may not have been allowed to attend the game on Saturday, but it still somewhat sounded like the stands had people in them. Crowd noise was pumped in over the speakers and was situationally specific, cheering loudly when WVU did something positive and getting louder during third downs for EKU.
n While WVU’s running game on Saturday was a dramatic improvement over what the team was able to do a season ago, it wasn’t the only area of need in which the Mountaineers showed promise. Last season, West Virginia was 109th in the FBS in third-down conversions. On Saturday, WVU was successful on 8 of 13 conversion attempts while limiting EKU to 1 of 11 conversions.