The 129th year of West Virginia football officially kicks off when the Mountaineers host Eastern Kentucky at Milan Puskar Stadium. The action gets underway at noon ET and will be broadcast on FS1.
This year’s season opener will be a first, as the Mountaineers will run out of the tunnel to a nearly empty stadium.
“We can’t have them in the stadium, we’ll be thinking about them and it will not be the same,” lamented head coach Neal Brown ahead of his second season at West Virginia.
While the atmosphere may be foreign to Brown, his opponent won’t be quite as much so. A native of the Bluegrass State himself, Brown’s mother is an alumna of Eastern Kentucky — which is located just about a 45-minute drive from his hometown of Danville.
“A tradition-rich program, one of the proudest programs in all of the FCS,” Brown said. “Growing up there, I always knew about Eastern Kentucky. I went to several games growing up….and so [I have] a lot of respect for them.”
The first-ever meeting between the Mountaineers and the Colonels will also be the first start for quarterback Jarret Doege in a WVU season opener after he was announced as the starter by Brown last week. Doege won the job over Austin Kendall, last season’s starter, on the heels of a trio of starts to close out 2019.
Doege began his career at Bowling Green, where he faced the Colonels as a sophomore in 2018. He tossed four 4 touchdowns and an interception in BGSU’s 39-28 victory.
““The main thing I remember is you can’t take them lightly, right?” Doege said on this week’s episode of The Neal Brown Show. “Bowling Green only won by one touchdown, no matter how many touchdowns I through that game, so you can’t take it lightly, you have to take it serious just like any other game and they are going to come ready to play.”
The Colonels come to Morgantown already with an 0-1 record, falling 59-0 to Marshall on Saturday. If that game is any indication as to what may happen at Milan Puskar Stadium, Doege and his receivers have a major opportunity — Marshall quarterback Grant Wells exploded for 307 yards and 4 touchdowns against EKU before he was relieved by sophomore Luke Zban, who added a score himself.
Here are some of the other match ups and story lines to keep an eye out for on Saturday:
A long offseason comes to an end
The last six months have been a roller coaster in the sports world, with a cloud of uncertainty hovering over the possibility of a full college football season even now as Big 12 teams postpone their season openers.
Right now, though, the Mountaineers are ready to go with their increased safety protocols — but Brown admits that his team still has a ways to go.
“It’s time to play,” Brown said. “We’ve practiced long enough. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Can WVU get back on top of their ground game?
Eastern Kentucky was one of the top rushing teams in FCS football last season, and they have shown that they will once again lean on their ground game this season. 31 of the Colonels’ 47 offensive snaps against Marshall were ground attempts, but they were able to muster just 86 yards from them — a far cry from their 205.5 yards per game in 2019.
Conversely, West Virginia’s ground attack was among the weakest in FBS football in 2019 with their 73.3 rushing yards per game beating out just Akron and Washington State. That poses the question — will they be better this year?
“We better be,” Brown said bluntly.
Leddie Brown is the lead back on the depth chart for the Mountaineers after getting three starts in 2019 and amassing 413 yards. The junior will also get depth from redshirt sophomore Alec Sinkfield, who made four appearances last season, as well as Tony Mathis, who added a touchdown in his redshirt season last year.
Brown has made it a point to emphasize special teams since joining the Mountaineers last winter, and that is a phase in which EKU can take an advantage.
“I thought their punter really hit the ball well last week,” Brown said.
Senior Thomas Cook took six punts last week, with a long of 59 yards and an average of 41.3.
Sophomore kick returner/running back Quentin Pringle also has the potential to be a thorn in the side of the Mountaineers, averaging 18 yards per return against Marshall.
How to watch:
The game kicks off at noon ET on FOX Sports 1. Join the Gold and Blue Nation team for three hours of pregame coverage on your local Nexstar station in the lead-up to kickoff.