Football, Sports, WVU Sports

Neal Brown’s switch from air raid to ground-and-pound has WVU as one of the top rushing teams in the country

MORGANTOWN — Neal Brown made his name as a college football coach as a disciple of the air raid offense. In four of Brown’s first five seasons as a play-caller, his teams finished in the top 10 in the nation in passing.

After four mediocre seasons at WVU, however, Brown knew a change was needed. Now in 2023, Brown has led the Mountaineers (7-4, 5-3 Big 12)  to their best season during his tenure while being the fifth-best rushing team in the country with 2,562 yards.

“When I started calling plays back in ‘08, we had a really good run where we were top five in passing for several years and now we’ve kind of flipped it,” Brown said. “It’s been kind of a 180. I think this is what’s best for this team.”

West Virginia is coming off of its standout rushing performance of the season, running for 424 yards in a 42-21 win over Cincinnati on Saturday.

“If you asked me 10 years ago if we were going to be fourth in the country in rushing, I probably didn’t have the vision for that,” Brown said Monday. “But we’ve recruited well on the offensive line, our quarterback is a game-changer, we’ve got multiple running backs that can play and our tight ends have done a nice job. So I think the pieces we have in place right now, we’re utilizing them in the best way.”

The Mountaineers have three players with over 600 yards on the ground heading into the final game of the regular season this week at Baylor (7 p.m./FS1), running backs CJ Donaldson (775) and Jahiem White (659) and quarterback Garrett Greene (605).

“We’re at the point right now where we’re playing the way we anticipated playing coming into the season,” offensive coordinator Chad Scott said. “From a recruiting standpoint, we’ll continue to recruit players who are electric with the ball in their hands and also have a mobile quarterback that can extend plays and make things happen beyond what’s called.”

Greene, in particular, has provided a new element to WVU’s offense. Perhaps a relic of Brown’s air raid days, the WVU starting quarterbacks during Brown’s tenure were all traditional pocket passers prior to Greene. Austin Kendall, Jarrett Doege and JT Daniels we nowhere near the running threats that Greene is and the success the junior has had this season has convinced Brown that a dual-threat quarterback is the way to go.

“If you go back and you look, it gives you a chance,” Brown said. “If you have a passing quarterback and you’re playing somebody that’s more talented than you, you have to be really perfect or you have to do some things that are non-traditional. If you have a dual threat, you don’t have to be as perfect.”

Greene has run for 605 yards and 11 touchdowns this season while throwing for 1,909 and 13 more scores with just four interceptions.

“I think history has proven this, the most effective way to win here is with a dual-threat quarterback,” Brown said. “And the game’s changed too. I think there are some changes in the game that have pushed us to this point too.”

Things aren’t likely to change once Greene’s time is up either. Backup Nicco Marchiol can also run, rushing for 127 yards in a little over two games of action this season, and true freshman Sean Boyle’s greatest strength is also his legs.

WVU’s quarterback in the 2024 recruiting class is Khalil Wilkins from Upper Marlboro, Md. The Mountaineers secured their quarterback for the 2025 class immediately following the Cincinnati game when Scott Fox from Mentor, Oh. announced his commitment. Both are three-star recruits.

“If you look at who we have committed, both of those guys are dual-threat guys and we’re going to continue to stay with that,” Brown said.