Contributors, Football, Sean Manning, Sports, WVU Sports

COLUMN: WVU, Neal Brown need to figure out offensive identity as 6-7 season comes to a close

As the Guaranteed Rate Bowl between WVU and Minnesota came to a close in the early morning hours Wednesday, trying to process the 2021 season as a whole was summed up so eloquently in the final game.

The Mountaineers defense played its tail off, but no matter how well it played, the deficiencies on offense could not be overcome. That happened time and time again this year, a campaign that finishes with a losing 6-7 record in head coach Neal Brown’s third season following an 18-6 loss to the Golden Gophers.

One takeaway is the defense, under coordinator Jordan Lesley, is proven. With the personnel losses last offseason, many thought it would take a major step back, but it was once again the strength of the team.

The Mountaineers allowed 18 points with 358 yards and forced two turnovers, enough to win most games.

Which leads to the offense, Brown’s bread and butter, and the reason he’s risen the coaching ranks over the last decade. WVU scored just one touchdown against Minnesota, capping off a 75-yard scoring drive.

The rest of the game? Just 131 yards on nine possessions in a dreadful performance.

“It was a struggle. We were down some personnel, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to be better,” Brown said after the game.

“We have to be better, and that’s on me, but we have to be better against those elite defense.”

The offense showed flashes of brilliance at times this year — early against Maryland and Virginia Tech, in the second half against Texas Tech, and most of the Iowa State win.

But also had awful stretches, including the second halves against the Terps, Hokies and Oklahoma, early against Texas Tech, and during the early November games against Oklahoma State and Kansas State.

Brown claims he is the play-caller, but many wondered if offensive coordinator Gerad Parker and former analyst Kirk Ciarocca — now an assistant a Minnesota — had their hands in the cookie jar at certain points this season.

No matter who’s calling plays, making personnel decisions or coming up with game plans, this offseason needs to have a strong focus on figuring out what in the world this offense wants to be.

Three out of the last four head-coaching hires at WVU were offensive coordinators at their previous stops, including Brown. The first was Rich Rodriguez, and it was clear what he wanted to do. His up-tempo, zone-block, spread-rushing attack was innovative at the time in the early 2000s, and it worked incredibly well during his seven seasons at West Virginia.

The next was Dana Holgorsen, who came from the Air Raid coaching tree and adapted into a more balanced scheme over the course of his eight seasons with the Mountaineers.

Now you have Brown, who was once a member of the same Air Raid tree as Holgorsen, but over the last three seasons, WVU hasn’t been particularly good at anything.

Running back Leddie Brown certainly showed what he can do, running for over 2,000 yards combined in 2020 and 2021, but even the running game would have complete no-show performances during that span.

It starts at quarterback and in the trenches, and the next eight months will be the most important of Brown’s coaching career from those two standpoints.

QB Jarret Doege has been serviceable at times, but in 2 1/2 years as the starter, has shown no progress and his limitations are continuously exploited. Without a clean pocket, he struggles, and at times, looks like a deer in headlights.

Doege has the option to return next year, but if he doesn’t, there will be a battle between Garrett Greene, Goose Crowder and high-profile recruit Nicco Marchiol for the starting job. Neal Brown’s tenure at WVU may very well hinge on these three quarterbacks.

While Doege got a lot of the blame this season, the offensive line was also a big part of the team’s struggles. Brown said from the day he was hired in January 2019 the offensive line was going to be a major work in progress.

Forced to play several who simply weren’t ready, there have been growing pains up front, this season included.

However, all five starters are expected to return next season, and an offseason of work while continuing to build depth behind them may be just as important as finding a starting QB.

Will there be changes on the offensive coaching staff? Three years in, someone may be forced to be the scapegoat, fair or not.

There may not be a more important offseason for the Mountaineers in the last 15 years, and it doesn’t include a coaching change at the top.

But to prevent that from being a reality, Brown, an offensive guru, needs to figure it out and figure it out quick.

A date with Pitt awaits next.