MORGANTOWN — Despite bowl eligibility being out of the picture, WVU football still has plenty to play for Saturday at Oklahoma State.
When the Mountaineers take the field in Stillwater (noon, ESPN2), they’ll be playing for the usual things football players care about — pride, finishing on the right note, building momentum for the future, etc. — but with a new athletic director expected to be hired in the coming weeks, head coach Neal Brown knows they might also be playing for his job.
When former AD Shane Lyons was let go, the university was very clear that Brown would finish out the current season and then it will be up to the new AD to decide his future with the school.
“Next week is a big week in a lot of different ways, but you can’t do anything about it,” Brown said during his Tuesday press conference. “We’ll deal with that when it happens. Whatever comes we’ll deal with it and we’ll deal with it head-on. Right now it’s about Oklahoma State and giving our guys the best chance and the best opportunity to go and win the game. I think you have to go with it that way.”
Brown said he does not expect any problem with motivation out of his players this week, despite not playing for a bowl game.
“I get our guys to think back to when they were a young kid if somebody said ‘you’re going to play in front of 55-60,000 (fans), you’re going to play on ESPN2 and you’re going to play Power 5 football at the highest level,’ you’d be pretty excited. So what’s changed?” Brown asked. “Just because it’s Thanksgiving week and it’s late in the year, does that make it change? I think it is what you make out of it. My approach is, it’s an opportunity.”
There’s certainly disappointment around the program that the season will end after Saturday, but the team is taking that as all the more reason to try and go out with a win against the Cowboys.
“I think every one of these kids and coaches wants to be able to have some kind of postseason opportunity,” defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley said. “But you’ve got to play the games to get that done and we didn’t. Any win — bowl, end of season, it doesn’t matter — that’s momentum you carry into next year. So there’s a lot to play for and our guys are competitive, they want to win no matter what the situation is.”
“At this level, it’s hard to win games,” linebacker Lee Kpogba added. “It’s also frustrating when you’re putting time end effort towards it and not getting the outcome you want. I feel like this win would do a lot for us going into the offseason with confidence.”
The last time WVU played a game with no hope of making a bowl was in 2019, Brown’s first season at WVU. That year the Mountaineers lost to Oklahoma State 20-13 in their penultimate game and then went on the road and beat TCU, 20-17, to finish the season. Brown is hoping to see his team show a similar resolve this year.
“I think how you finish says a lot about who you are as an individual,” Brown said. “We fully expect as a staff and a football team, individually and collectively, to finish in the right manner.”
Following the season, the first of two transfer portal windows will open, where student-athletes have 45 days to enter the portal and transfer with no penalty. That coincides with a recruiting dead period, where coaches are not allowed in-person contact with recruits. Brown said that time is specifically for talking to his current players and their future plans.
“There are a lot of things that have to be decided, but what we’ll do is try to get in front of it,” Brown said. “That dead period is in there so you can have conversations with your players and that’s our intention.”
Brown said he fully expects other programs to court some of WVU’s best players this offseason.
“I’m quite sure that our best players and the guys we have put a premium on retaining, they’re going to have options,” he said.
The Mountaineers expect to be fairly healthy for their final game. Receiver Kaden Prather is expected to return after missing last week and running back Tony Mathis has progressed after a nagging injury limited him against the Wildcats.
Brown expects to use a lot of players on Saturday, particularly younger guys who haven’t seen much time this year and could still redshirt.
“We’re allowed, one game in our league, to travel more players so we’re going to travel more players,” Brown said. “We’re going to be intentional about getting some guys who we intend to redshirt, but have games, in on special teams, offense and defense.”
The one player Brown ruled out for certain is freshman safety Raleigh Collins, who has already played in four games this season, but whom the team wants to redshirt.
Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell has quite a history with Oklahoma State in his playing days. As a quarterback at Texas Tech in 2007, Harrell threw for 646 yards and five touchdowns in a game at Oklahoma State that the Red Raiders eventually lost, 49-45. He completed 46-of-67 passes and future pros Michael Crabtree and Danny Amendola both had over 200 yards receiving.
It was the fourth-highest passing yards in a single game at the time and now sits as the seventh-highest mark. Former WVU quarterback Geno Smith sits right ahead of Harrell on the list with the 565 yards he threw for in a crazy shootout with Baylor in 2012. Smith tossed eight touchdowns on 45-of-51 passing in the 70-63 WVU victory.