Optimism can be in short supply after a rivalry loss. That doesn’t seem to be the case with West Virginia.
Despite the disappointing result, the Mountaineers had a lot of positive takeaways from their first game that they see as good signs for the rest of the season. For Neal Brown, it starts with the team’s effort.
“I thought our guys competed hard, played the game the right way,” Brown said. “We just made some mistakes in critical times.”
WVU’s offense made a big step forward to start 2022, recording 404 total yards in the game for one of the best offensive performances since the start of 2021. The Mountaineers performed on both the ground and through the air, providing a stout Panther defense a tough challenge to start the season.
The run game may have come as a surprise to many, especially because it was driven by a new piece in CJ Donaldson. He put up 125 of WVU’s 190 rushing yards in the loss.
“That was a big number, and if you take some of those sacks away it’s even higher I think,” said WVU offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. “To rush the ball like that on that defense was really, probably a little bit unexpected because they pride themselves on stopping the run, they’re going to have a lot of guys around the box.”
Harrell was also encouraged by the debut performance of JT Daniels. The transfer quarterback was a strong piece to the offense, providing both tangible and intangible assets to the team.
Daniels made his most visible contribution in the passing game, but he also added a touchdown on a QB sneak. He took a big hit and returned to the game with an arm sleeve — one of several shots he took in the game.
“I was proud of the way he played and one of the things that I’m probably most proud of, I thought he played extremely tough,” Harrell said. “The way I like to try to define the word tough would be like overcoming adversity with a great attitude and great effort, and I think he did a great job of that. He took some shots and kept playing.”
WVU’s defense also provided the team with a chance to win, earning some key stops throughout the game. It did struggle in the closing minutes of the game, but overall, the coaching staff was also encouraged with the performance in that game.
The defense had to adjust throughout the game as it saw some things it didn’t expect before the kickoff, but that is normal in a season opener.
Still, the WVU coaching staff felt they controlled the line of scrimmage against Pitt, holding the Panthers to 76 yards on the ground.
“Overall, I thought they played hard, I thought they were ready to go,” said WVU defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley. “I thought their effort wasn’t an issue.”
WVU also got several strong individual performances on defenses, starting with Dante Stills. Brown didn’t hold back on the star defensive tackle’s game, saying it was the best game of his career in the system.
Lesley echoed that sentiment and said it was part of the payoff from his offseason work. He didn’t play a perfect game, however, and, still has some things to improve on.
“I thought he [played his best game], I thought he played hard. You guys have heard me say this, I don’t believe in mistake-free football, it’s not the design of the game,” Lesley said. “Everybody makes mistakes, and Dante made mistakes, I think everyone’s going to in a game, but overall complete game, I think it was [his best].”