The West Virginia Mountaineers suffered a pair of close, late-season losses that ended the squad’s hopes of a spot in either the Big 12 Championship Game or the College Football Playoff. However, an 8-3 overall regular season record and 6-3 finish in conference play should be viewed as a success in Morgantown.
West Virginia spent a large part of the season ranked in the top 10 in the AP poll and the CFP selection committee’s rankings and controlled its fate until the final whistle blew at the end of the regular season. The Mountaineers didn’t reach their loftiest goals for the 2018 college football season, but here we take time to celebrate the players that contributed most to a successful campaign, and to the moments that made it special.
Offensive MVP: Will Grier, QB
It’s taken just two seasons for Grier to become one of the greatest players in West Virginia football history. Grier, who has decided to not play in the Camping World Bowl to focus on the upcoming NFL draft, will finish his career third on the school’s all-time passing leaderboard (7,354 yards) and second in touchdown passes (71). He has set a new standard for passer rating, as his 169.2 surpasses Geno Smith's 153.5 mark.
The Maxwell Award finalist posted even better numbers in 2018 than he did in his first season on campus, completing 67 percent of his passes for 3,864 yards and 37 touchdowns with eight interceptions. Not playing in the bowl game means he won't have a chance at breaking the school's single-season record for passing yards, but he led the Big 12 and is in third in the nation at 351.3 per game. His 175.8 passer rating places him second in the conference and fifth in the country. He also ranks fourth in FBS with 9.7 yards per pass attempt.
Defensive MVP: David Long Jr., LB
Similarly, very few defenders have been as productive throughout their West Virginia careers as Long. A first-team All-Big 12 honoree, the junior led the team and ranked fourth in the Big 12 with 97 total tackles during the regular season, while his 68 solo tackles ranked second in the conference. The junior leads the Big 12 with 18.5 tackles for a loss and is fifth with 7.0 sacks. Long also has been credited with four pass breakups and a forced fumble. Should he return for his senior season, Long will be a legitimate candidate for All-America honors and national awards.
Best Freshman: Dante Stills, DL
Underrated true freshman Leddie Brown finished the regular season with 433 rushing yards and four touchdowns, both of which ranked third on the team, and topped 100 yards in two games. But his production tailed off towards the end of the season. Stills — the crown jewel of the 2019 recruiting class — lived up to his billing with 13 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, three sacks and two forced fumbles entering the bowl game. Stills also had some of his best games in important Big 12 matchups, as he recorded one sack and forced a fumble against Baylor and also picked up a sack in the win over TCU.
Best Play of the Season: Game-Winning 2-Point Conversion to Beat Texas
Ranked 13th in the nation and playing on the road against No. 17 Texas with first place in the Big 12 on the line, the Mountaineers executed one of the gutsiest play calls of the season. Trailing 41-34 late in the fourth quarter, Will Grier threw off balance and connected with a double-covered Gary Jennings Jr. in the back of the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown with just 0:16 left in regulation. Head coach Dana Holgorsen wasted little time with the decision to go for two and the win instead of playing for overtime.
Grier then found David Sills V on a slant for an apparent go-ahead score, but a timeout before the snap negated the first attempt. Opting to change tactics for the second two-point try, Grier scampered to the left front pylon on a QB draw. He held the ball in the air across the goal line before tossing it in celebration as West Virginia took a 42-41 and held on to win, improving to 7-1 overall and 5-1 in conference play in the process.
Best Performance By a Player in 2018: Gary Jennings Jr. vs. Oklahoma
Will Grier’s passing performances against Tennessee (429 yards, 5 TDs), Texas (346, 3) or Oklahoma (539, 4) are more than worthy candidates, but Jennings' career night against the Sooners stands out as the best of the 2018 season. Playing in front of the Milan Puskar Stadium crowd for the final time on Senior Day, Grier and Jennings connected seven times for 225 yards and two touchdowns. Jennings’s first score, a 57-yarder early in the third quarter, tied the game 35-35. His second, a 75-yard catch and run down the seam, gave the Mountaineers a 49-45 heading into the fourth.
Best Game (Team Performance): 47-10 Victory Over TCU
It was a rebuilding year for TCU, but that doesn’t diminish the impressive performance of the Mountaineers in a 47-10 blowout victory. The West Virginia defense allowed a 30-yard field goal in the first quarter, and the Mountaineers trailed 3-0 until the second when the offense exploded for 24 points, highlighted by a 33-yard touchdown run by Kennedy McKoy and a 32-yard TD pass from Will Grier to Trevon Wesco. WVU added a safety shortly after halftime and tacked on three more touchdowns in the second half.
In all, West Virginia racked up 535 total yards (including 371 through the air) against what would officially be the best total defense (344.4 ypg) and passing defense (202.6) in the Big 12, statistically speaking. TCU also led the conference by allowing just 4.9 yards per play during the regular season, though the Mountaineers picked up an average of 6.6 per snap. The WVU defense, which surrendered just 222 total yards and 12 first downs while forcing two turnovers, allowed a single touchdown in the third quarter. David Long Jr. recorded three sacks and four tackles for a loss against the Horned Frogs. Josh Norwood led the unit with eight tackles, and Dante Sills added a sack as well.
Defining Moment: Fourth-quarter Fumble and Touchdown Return vs. Oklahoma
When a team comes so close to reaching the conference championship game, the unfortunate bounces that help shut the door stand out as defining moments. For West Virginia, Will Grier’s fourth-quarter fumble that Oklahoma’s Curtis Bolton returned 48 yards for a touchdown, was the back-breaker that ended the Mountaineers’ hopes of a Big 12 title.
Trailing 52-49 with 10 minutes left to play in the fourth quarter, and with the help of two penalties and a 33-yard run by Kennedy McKoy, Grier led the Mountaineers across midfield and into scoring position. On 1st-and-10 at the Oklahoma 42-yard line, Grier dropped back to pass, stepped up and eluded one oncoming rusher, but had his arm hit as he loaded to throw downfield. The ball shot into the air, squirted out of the hands of multiple diving Mountaineers and was picked up by Bolton, who raced to the end zone. It was the second scoop-and-score for the Sooners in the game, but the one the West Virginia offense would not be able to overcome. Oklahoma held on for a 59-56 win, and the Sooners would go on to win the Big 12 and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Biggest Surprise: Offensive Struggles vs. Iowa State
West Virginia finished the regular season ranked ninth in the nation in scoring offense (42.3 ppg), eighth in total offense (520.4 ypg) and sixth in yards per play (7.19). In short, the Mountaineers were elite offensively. However, Dana Holgorsen’s offense was completely befuddled in a 30-14 loss to Iowa State.
West Virginia managed just 152 yards of total offense against the Cyclones and scored just one offensive touchdown — an 18-yard pass from Will Grier to David Sills V midway through the first quarter. Iowa State held the Mountaineers to season lows in rushing yards (52), passing yards (100) and yards per play (3.62), and kept the West Virginia offense off the scoreboard for the final 51:47 of the game. The loss ended West Virginia’s hopes of an undefeated season and gave the Mountaineers zero room for error the rest of the regular season in their efforts to get into the Big 12 Championship Game and make a case for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Biggest Disappointment: Back-to-Back Losses
After the loss to Iowa State, the Mountaineers won three in a row, including the dramatic road victory over Texas. West Virginia then entered its Nov. 17 road matchup against Oklahoma State seventh in the College Football Playoff rankings and built a 31-14 lead entering halftime. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, the offense slowed and injuries to the linebacker corps loomed large as the Cowboys stormed back in the second half. Oklahoma State capped the comeback with a 75-yard touchdown drive to pull ahead 45-41 in the final minute of the game.
Though a second loss ended any realistic opportunity for a playoff spot (and the canceled game with NC State earlier in the season didn’t help, either), West Virginia still controlled its Big 12 destiny heading into the regular-season finale against Oklahoma. Nevertheless, two poorly-timed Will Grier fumbles resulted in defensive touchdowns for the Sooners, which swung the game — and a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game — to Oklahoma.
Senior That Will be Missed the Most in 2019: David Sills V, WR
West Virginia must replace several outstanding seniors from its 2018 squad including Will Grier, Gary Jennings Jr., offensive lineman Yondy Cajuste and defensive back Dravon Askew-Henry, but the departure of Sills might be the most significant overall. Sills, a former quarterback who blossomed into an All-America touchdown machine, surpassed 2,000 career receiving yards after a 131-yard performance against Oklahoma.
Heading into the bowl game, Sills has amassed 128 receptions for 2,007 yards and 35 touchdowns in his college career. In 2018 alone, he has 61 catches for 896 yards and 15 TDs and has recorded at least one touchdown reception in seven straight games. Production like that doesn’t come along very often, and the Mountaineers will miss Sills and his 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame.
Player to Watch in 2019: Kennedy McKoy, RB
With Will Grier, David Sills V and Gary Jennings Jr. all exhausting their eligibility, we can expect the West Virginia offense to look much different in 2019. Assuming he returns to Morgantown for his senior season, McKoy could be the focal point of an offense in transition. McKoy led the Mountaineers with 729 rushing yards and seven touchdowns during the regular season, and he also added 221 receiving yards and another score on 16 receptions. He needs just 50 yards from scrimmage in the bowl game to reach 1,000 for the season, and the 6-foot, 198-pound North Carolina native could be in line for an even more productive 2019.
Biggest Offseason Question: Is Jack Allison the Next Great WVU QB?
Dana Holgorsen has a strong track record when it comes to replacing star quarterbacks, and he’s also done a good job taking in a transfer and folding him into the offense, a la Will Grier. Allison, the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart this season and a former four-star Miami signee, fits the Grier mold in both cases and has the inside track to succeed Grier as the starter. And he presumably will get a head start by getting the nod in the Camping World Bowl against Syracuse on Dec. 28. In six games this season, Allison has completed six of 10 pass attempts for 75 yards and a touchdown with an interception.
Holgorsen's track record with quarterbacks speaks for itself, but how will Allison respond with so little time to prepare? Regardless of what happens in the bowl game, the focus will be more on 2019 as the outlook for this offense with Allison (or perhaps someone else) at the helm will be widely discussed.