STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State did not look like the No. 7 juggernaut it was made out to be, but West Virginia still did not play nearly well enough to give the Mountaineers a chance at an upset Saturday night.
If not for some early mistakes by the Nittany Lions, West Virginia would not have been in the game for as long as they ended up being.
In the loss, WVU did not play to its strengths enough and its weaknesses were exposed as the Nittany Lions turned a 14-7 halftime lead into a 38-15 victory.
West Virginia was, for the most part, good at the things it was supposed to be good at. The rushing attack was potent, particularly when sophomore CJ Donaldson got going behind center Zach Frazier. Donaldson carried the ball 18 times for 81 yards and scored the team’s first touchdown.
However, there were too many times when a penalty or inopportune play call put WVU behind the sticks and the Mountaineers were forced to rely on the arm of quarterback Garrett Greene and a shaky receiving corps to convert on third or fourth down instead of on Donaldson and the running game.
“We came in and we were going to be aggressive,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said. “I wasn’t trying to win any beauty contests, I was going to go for it on third and fourth down and we didn’t convert. We knew that if we were going to win, we were going to have to control the ball.”
WVU was 4 for 14 on third down and 3 for 6 on fourth.
“We didn’t execute in those third and fourth down situations in passing,” Brown said. “We’ve got to be able to hit on a couple of those.”
The Mountaineers only scored on two drives despite not turning the ball over.
Greene was inaccurate and uncomfortable and finished a disappointing 16 of 27 for 162 yards. WVU receivers caught 10 passes for 112 yards. The biggest passing play was a 37-yard first-quarter reception by Devin Carter, who finished with six grabs for 90 yards.
With a chance to drive down the field and tie the game at the beginning of the second half, WVU had a 15-yard run called back on a procedural penalty and later punted after a failed third-and-12 pass attempt.
“We knew we were in it. If I convert that third down, I think the game looks a lot different,” Greene said. “I just didn’t make enough plays to win the game.”
The Mountaineers never had another chance as Penn State scored 17 unanswered points to put the game out of reach
Defensively, West Virginia was able to get a few stops in the first half — and got lucky as Penn State missed two field goals in the final three minutes of the second quarter — but the secondary, much maligned a season ago, could not hold up at all.
Penn State quarterback Drew Allar, making his first career start, all but picked apart WVU’s coverages, completing 21 of 29 passes for 325 yards and three touchdowns.
“We definitely, as a defense, have to challenge routes more,” said linebacker Lee Kpogba, who finished with a team-high 13 tackles. “People were running free and that’s just not who we’re supposed to be.”
The Mountaineers had a little success in run defense, and the pass rush got to Allar a handful of times, but without adequate coverage on the back end, it did not matter.
PSU running backs Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen combined for 121 yards, averaging 5.3 per carry. Not great defensive numbers, but also not as back-breaking as the pass defense. Penn State had nine passes of 15 or more yards, including two touchdowns.
“We didn’t play well enough there,” Brown said. “We’re going to have to cover better. If you look at who we play, there are some really good passing teams, and if we give up that many yards passing it’s going to be tough sledding. We better get better in a hurry.”
West Virginia has a cupcake game against Duquesne next week in which they’ll look awesome and score a bunch of points, but then rival Pitt comes to town. Two weeks isn’t very long to try and fix the glaring issues that Penn State exposed Saturday, but Brown has to hope it’s long enough to at least patch them up a little.
“I thought we had a chance to win,” Brown said. “Am I disappointed? Absolutely. Am I discouraged in our football team? No, because I know we’re going to be good.”
If this season is to be any different than the last few years, Brown and the Mountaineers will need to figure out a way to make it so their strengths push them further ahead than their weaknesses will hold them back.