Mountaineers looking to improve at Missouri

Tammy Shriver/Times West VirginianWest Virginia quarterback Austin Kendall passes the ball during the Mountaineers' season-opening game against James Madison last weekend at Milan Puskar Stadium.

morgantown — If opposites attract, West Virginia and Missouri are the perfect matchup in today’s noon meeting in a newly-expanded Memorial Stadium in Columbia, Missouri.

It is the first road game for the Mountaineers under Neal Brown. It’s also the first home game of the season for the Tigers, who also kickstart a five-game homestand.

West Virginia is 1-0. Missouri is 0-1.

Missouri figured to keep up its emphasis on the passing game it had leaned upon under Barry Odom with new transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant of Clemson running the show, while the Mountaineers expected to be more run-oriented this year with a locker room dotted with proven running backs and an unproven quarterback in Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall.

In the openers, West Virginia could not run the ball against James Madison in a 20-13 victory, while Missouri could not stop the run, giving up 302 rushing yards in a 37-31 upset loss at Wyoming.

“Missouri lost this past week to Wyoming, and the elevation (in Laramie) probably had an effect,” Brown said on Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “Also on opening weekend, you just never know what you’re going to get. (The Tigers) didn’t play their best, but I expect to see an entirely different team in Columbia on Saturday.

“I have a lot of respect for Barry Odom. I’ve played against him, offense versus his defense, before,” Brown continued. “If you look at his tenure, whenever they have had adversity his teams have always responded in a big way. I expect them to do so this Saturday and play a lot better brand of football.”

Brown is also hoping to see better football from his team than what his players presented on the field to survive the opening scare it got from JMU, needing a second-half rally to pull out the victory before a sold out home crowd.

What Brown must avoid, however, is being something he is not. While Wyoming exploited Mizzou with its running game, its running game does not mirror WVU’s. The Mountaineers have to get tougher yards, yards they didn’t get against JMU.

“They hit them with some quarterback runs, and what they did was they were able to play multiple tight ends — sometimes three of them — and they shifted them and traded them and caught them out of their gaps,” Brown explained. “We don’t necessarily have that running quarterback. We don’t have that many tight ends who are ready to play. Exactly how they ran the ball and how we run the ball don’t match up.”

It isn’t that Kendall can’t run the ball. It’s more a matter of style.

“I can run,” Kendall said this week. “I didn’t run very much last game. (In truth, he did not carry the ball at all.) Wyoming’s quarterback had some scrambles that led to touchdowns, some pulls that led to touchdowns. If there’s opportunities there, we can take those.

“But I’m a pocket quarterback. If the ball is there to throw, the ball will be there.”

But that won’t matter much unless the offensive line makes a huge step forward.

“Part of that, especially from the offensive line’s standpoint, is when guys get concerned about missing guys, they don’t come off the ball as hard,” Brown said in way of an explanation. “I think that’s what happened a lot to us on Saturday — those guys were playing either a new position or had never played meaningful snaps before, and they wanted to make sure they got on their guy, and they were scared of really coming off the ball for fear of missing and having a tackle for a loss.”

How much will WVU run the ball?

“Will we come out and run the ball like Army on Saturday? I don’t know,” Brown said, “but I hope we’re a lot more physical than we were on Saturday.”

When they throw, they have to make the most of it. Last week there were six drops by receivers.

“I told them after the game, you make these plays in practice, you have to make them in the game,” Kendall said. “We have to make these plays to get first downs and keep the ball rolling. You made them before, so you can make them again.”

However, the youth of the Mountaineers adds another variable to the equation. Like it or not, playing on the road is an obstacle — or, at least, Brown is trying to convince his team of that.

“The first road game is not as big a deal as the first game of season,” Brown said and believes that the way they settled down in the second half of the first game is something the Mountaineers can build on.

“We got the nerves out,” Brown said.

The WVU pass rush and secondary will be challenged by Bryant, who threw for 423 yards and two touchdowns in his Missouri debut.

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Notes: The last time these two teams met was in 2016 when WVU ruined Odoms’ debut as Tiger coach, 26-11...The all-time series is tied at 3-3...The only expected change in the WVU lineup will have JoVanni Haskins starting at tight end...WVU looking to cut down on five illegal procedure penalties from the opener...Chase Behrndt, the first player ever recruited to WVU from Missouri, will start at guard with friends and family on hand, wearing T-shirts that bear his image...Running back Leddie Brown missed the opener for WVU and his availability is unknown.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter at @bhertzel.

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