Despite fielding one of the most unproven rosters in the Big 12, expectations were high for the West Virginia Mountaineers in 2017 following a 10-win season. Head coach Dana Holgorsen led his team to a 7-5 overall record and 5-4 mark in conference play against a tough schedule during the regular season, which included four losses to ranked opponents and wins against two others. As the Mountaineers prepare for Utah and the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Dec. 26, here are some team awards.
Offensive MVP: Will Grier, QB
One of West Virginia’s biggest preseason questions was answered quickly as Grier emerged as a star. The transfer from Florida started the first 11 games before suffering a hand injury against Texas. The junior completed 250 of 388 pass attempts (64.4 percent) for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns with 12 interceptions and was recently named Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year. He also gained 122 rushing yards and scored twice on the ground. Grier ranked third in the Big 12 in passing (317.3 ypg), yards per attempt (9.0) and passer rating (162.7), as well as TD passes — all of which also placed him among the top 10 quarterbacks in the country. Grier's status for the bowl game against Utah is up in the air but it seems more likely that he will not be able to play. Even if Grier doesn't play, he is expected to recover fully and could be a Heisman Trophy candidate in 2018 assuming he returns for his senior season.
Defensive MVP: Al-Rasheed Benton, LB
The West Virginia defense struggled as a unit throughout the 2017 season, but several players put together solid individual performances. The best all-around defender was Benton (above, right), who leads the Mountaineers and ranks fourth in the Big 12 with 102 total tackles. He is averaging 8.5 tackles per game and made at least seven stops in each game. Benton tied sophomore David Long Jr. for the team lead with 13.0 tackles for a loss, which places him sixth in the conference. He also is tied for second with three sacks and has two interceptions (tied for third) to his credit as well.
Best Freshman: Kenny Robinson, DB
One of 29 freshman to see action on defense this fall, Robinson didn’t get on the stat sheet in the season opener against Virginia Tech, but took advantage of opportunities given in the subsequent blowouts against East Carolina, Delaware State and Kansas to position himself to be a key contributor for the Mountaineers' defense as the season progressed. Enterting the bowl game, Robinson has recorded 38 total tackles, including two for a loss, three pass breakups and three interceptions — two of which he returned for touchdowns. Robinson, who started the final three games of the regular season at free safety, should pair with longtime starter Dravon Askew-Henry to form one of the top safety duos in the Big 12 in 2018.
Best Play of the Season: Halftime Hail Mary vs. Kansas State
Holding a tight 21-20 lead in the final seconds of the first half in an important road game against Kansas State, West Virginia forced a turnover to take control on the Wildcats' 30-yard line with 10 seconds left. Will Grier dropped back to pass, got great protection from his offensive line, and found wide receiver Ka’Raun White in the end zone to push the lead to 28-20. The Hail Mary proved to be a difference-maker, as the Mountaineers were shut out in the second half but still managed to hold on for an important 28-23 road win.
Best Performance by a Player in 2017: WR David Sills vs. Baylor
There were a lot of great performances by West Virginia players over the course of the season. Will Grier threw for a career- high 375 yards and tied his career best with five touchdown passes against Baylor one week after he threw for 352 yards and five TDs in a come-from-behind victory over Texas Tech. Wide receiver Gary Jennings caught 13 passes for 189 yards and a TD against Virginia Tech, and caught 13 more for 115 yards against Kansas State. Ka'Raun White had eight receptions for 168 yards and two TDs against Kansas State and 167 yards and a TD on four catches against Iowa State. Running back Justin Crawford surpassed 100 rushing yards seven times, and Kennedy McKoy found the end zone three times while running for 137 yards against Oklahoma.
However, the best of the bunch was Sills, who had no shortage of outstanding performances to choose from. Sills hauled in seven passes for 136 yards and three touchdowns in the 38-36 victory over Baylor, helping build a big early lead that held up following a furious second-half charge from the Bears. It was the third three-TD game for Sills, who also came up huge against Texas Tech and East Carolina. The 6-foot-4 junior also had multiple scores against Virginia Tech, Kansas, TCU and Kansas State.
Best Game (Team Performance): Iowa State Win
Just one week after Dana Holgorsen called out his team’s toughness for its performance against Oklahoma State, West Virginia responded with a gritty 20-16 victory over a ranked Iowa State squad. The Cyclones, who beat both Big 12 Championship Game participants Oklahoma and TCU, managed just 350 yards of total offense as WVU rolled up 524 – 208 rushing and 316 passing. The combined offensive and defensive efforts, which included an important interception by Al-Rasheed Benton on the opening drive, is the best all-around performance of the season for the Mountaineers to this point.
Defining Moment: Final 24 Minutes vs. Texas Tech
The first half of the season would have ended on a much more sour note had West Virginia failed to beat No. 24 Texas Tech in October. Coming into the game unranked and with a 3-2 overall record following a tough 31-24 loss to TCU, the Mountaineers were in danger of slipping into mediocrity. Things looked bleak when the Red Raiders jumped out to a 28-17 lead at halftime and added another touchdown 35-17 with a little more than nine minutes remaining in the third quarter. However, the West Virginia defense kept Tech off the scoreboard the rest of the afternoon and Will Grier four second-half touchdown passes to lead the 46-35 come-from-behind victory. The win helped turn the Mountaineers' season around as they stayed in contention for a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game until late November.
Biggest Surprise: David Sills, WR
There is a long list of former quarterbacks making an impact at other positions across college football, but Sills is one of the best in recent memory. The famous former seventh grade phenom signed with West Virginia out of high school, but spent time at El Camino (Calif.) College before settling in to the position switch in Morgantown. The move certainly paid off as Sills exploded for an FBS-best 18 touchdown receptions among his 60 catches for 980 yards, making him an All-American and pro prospect.
Biggest Disappointment: Texas Loss
On Nov. 18, West Virginia hosted the Longhorns. The Mountaineers entered 7-3 overall and 5-2 in conference play, and a victory over Texas would set up a high-stakes, regular season finale with Oklahoma with potential Big 12 Championship Game implications. Unfortunately, Will Grier suffered an ugly finger injury to his throwing hand in the first quarter. After Grier exited the game, West Virginia fumbled away a scoring opportunity and fell behind 14-0 before halftime. The early hole proved too big to climb. Texas won 28-14 and knocked WVU out of the title race.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Kyzir White, S
Several West Virginia seniors played huge roles in 2017. Offensively, Justin Crawford, and Ka'Raun White were playmakers, and guard Kyle Bosch was a steady and versatile presence for a young offensive line. Al-Rasheed Benton was the defensive MVP in 2018, but White developed into an All-Big 12 selection after recording 81 total tackles (second on the team), including 6.0 tackles for loss, and three intereceptions (tied for first) in the regular season. His fourth-quarter pick against Texas Tech sealed an important victory for the Mountaineers.
Player to Watch in 2018: David Long Jr., LB
Al-Rasheed Benton and Kyzir White may have overshadowed him at times, but Long could make a strong case to be the MVP of the 2017 West Virginia defense — and he’ll certainly be a leader for next season's unit. Despite not playing in the first four games, Long recorded 69 total tackles during the regular season, which places him third on the team, and he is tied for the team lead with 13.0 TFLs. He also has a sack and six pass breakups.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Can the Defense Step Up?
Things would change if Will Grier made an unexpected early leap to the NFL, but as of now it looks like the Mountaineers are set offensively for 2018 with David Sills and Gary Jennings expected to be one of the top receiver duos in the Big 12, four starters returning on the offensive line, and Kennedy McKoy ready to step into Justin Crawford’s shoes as the top running back. Therefore, the top question for West Virginia looking ahead is whether or not the defense can step up and play at a level worthy of Big 12 contention.
The Mountaineers finished the regular season eighth in the conference and No. 110 in the country in total defense (452.5 ypg) and eighth in the league and 108th in the FBS in yards allowed per play (6.28), thanks in large part to a unit that surrendered a Big 12-worst 204.8 rushing yards per contest and 5.06 yards per carry. The front seven is expected to return largely intact with only Al-Rasheed Benton and fellow senior linebacker Xavier Preston scheduled to depart, but the loss of Kyzir White and fellow defensive backs Elijah Battle, Mike Daniels Jr. and Toyous Avery will be difficult to overcome.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.