It's been a turbulent offseason for everyone, but the West Virginia Mountaineers are one of the few FBS teams to know exactly who and where they were expected to play this week. Though West Virginia was unfortunately forced to cancel its previously scheduled season opener against Florida State in Atlanta, the Mountaineers have had the Eastern Kentucky Colonels slotted in this spot on the schedule all along. And with last year's strong finish, which included two wins over the final three games of a 5-7 campaign, coupled with EKU's 59-0 loss to Marshall a week ago, West Virginia is a good bet to open Neal Brown's second season with a victory.
Eastern Kentucky vs. West Virginia
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 12 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: West Virginia -40.5
When Eastern Kentucky Has the Ball
With most of its Ohio Valley Conference rivals forgoing football this fall, EKU put together an independent schedule of eight games, including three against FBS opponents. Last year, Eastern Kentucky finished 7-5 overall, including a 5-3 mark in the OVC. However, if last week's opener was any indication, it could be a difficult first season for new head coach Walt Wells and the Colonels.
Quarterback Parker McKinney completed 7-of-10 pass attempts for 71 yards and an interception in the loss to the Thundering Herd, and though he was sacked only three times officially, he was under constant pressure. Jacquez Jones led the team with four catches, but only accounted for nine yards. Keyion Dixon's three grabs resulted in a team-high 34 yards. Running back Alonzo Booth, a load at 250 pounds, struggled to find running room on 15 carries. He logged only 33 yards on the ground, averaging 2.2 per attempt. Quentin Pringle led the team with 39 rushing yards on six carries, which included a 23-yarder — one of just three Eastern Kentucky offensive plays that gained 20 yards or more.
Though this is the first game for West Virginia with its new by-committee coordinator approach, the defense should match up well. The Mountaineers showed promise last season, especially in the final two games when WVU held both Oklahoma State and TCU to less than 300 total yards. The unit is built to maintain, if not extend that success this year. Defensive lineman Darius Stills, who tied with his brother Dante for the team lead with seven sacks a year ago, leads a group of six returning starters returning.
When West Virginia Has the Ball
Quarterback Jarret Doege played in only four games for the Mountaineers last year following his transfer from Bowling Green. Doege's lack of playing time preserved a redshirt season, but by starting the final three games he also provided a spark. The junior finished 79-for-120 passing (65.8 percent) with 818 yards and seven touchdowns, but was intercepted three times — all in the 20-17 victory over TCU in the season finale. Doege threw three touchdowns in a 24-20 win over Kansas State in his first start, which snapped a five-game WVU losing streak, and he followed with a season-high 307 passing yards and 8.1 yards per pass attempt in a close 20-13 loss to Oklahoma State. Given his solid on-field performance, it wasn't a surprise when Brown announced Doege had won the starting job over senior Austin Kendall, who started the first nine games last season.
Doege has a solid group of receivers to work with, including Sam James, who led the team with 69 catches and 677 receiving yards and scored two touchdowns a year ago. Marshall threw for 345 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 11.9 yards per attempt last week, which should have the experienced WVU receiving unit salivating. But the biggest concern for the Mountaineers entering 2020 is a rushing attack that ranked last in the Big 12 and No. 128 nationally with just 73.3 yards per contest last season. West Virginia managed just 2.63 yards per carry and scored only seven times on the ground, both of which ranked 129th out of 130 FBS teams. No wonder the Mountaineers ranked last in the conference in scoring (20.6 points per game) and total offense (321.9 ypg), which ranked No. 116 and No. 119 nationally.
It would be very tempting to look back at how Marshall — a far less talented than West Virginia on paper — dominated Eastern Kentucky and believe the Mountaineers should do the same, if not better, this week. There's also optimism in Morgantown for the second year for Brown following the late-season momentum brought on by Doege's ascension at quarterback. WVU is a heavy favorite for good reason, but the Mountaineers also scored more than 30 points only once last season. Until we see evidence the running game has improved, it's hard to call for a total blowout.