By Mark Robinson
West Virginia University brought its annual spring game to The Greenbrier last Saturday, a competition between the offense and the defense that is designed to show what players have made the most progress during spring drills. The game also provides a little football fix for fans who have gone without one since January.
More than 6,000 of those fans paid for tickets to get in, and a few more watched from the hillside below the interstate, enjoying perhaps the best view of the field. The game was played on the upper field, with the defense in blue jerseys and the offense in white. The offense won the game, 49-46, coming back from a 46-36 deficit in the last four minutes.
Skyler Howard, projected to be the starting quarterback for the fall, completed 18 of 26 passes for 270 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception. Marcus Simms had a great showing as a true freshman receiver, scoring two touchdowns on five receptions. Another freshman, Kennedy McCoy, led all rushers with 58 yards. Rushel Shell, who will be the starter in the fall, picked up 50 yards. Neither back was tackled for a loss. William Crest, a quarterback whose athletic abilities allow him to play a number of positions, ran twelve times for 89 yards. He struggled in the pocket, throwing two interceptions, but late in the game had a TD pass.
The surprise at quarterback was Cody Saunders, who went 6 of 7 for 92 yards and two touchdowns. He’s a 6’1”, 202 lb. dual threat quarterback out of Panama City, Florida, and he looked poised in the pocket. He will be a sophomore this fall.
Shelton Gibson, Gary Jennings, Elijah Wellman, Ricky Rogers and David Sills all had touchdown catches. Jennings’ TD was for 72 yards, from quarterback Howard. The ground game recorded no touchdowns, but the strikes from the air were numerous, and generally dramatic, with long passes and nice runs after the catch.
The secondary gave up those passes, but also came down with four interceptions, two by Shane Commodore and one each by Antonio Crawford and Hodari Christian.
The Mountaineer secondary lost almost everyone who contributed last year: Karl Joseph, Terrell Chestnut, Daryl Worley, KJ Dillon and Ricky Rumph. Only one starter remains, Dravon Askew-Henry, and although he should be a good anchor, the unit as a whole is a question mark going into the fall.
Blue Adams, a defensive secondary coach, was hired just six weeks ago, having coached for the Miami Dolphins the last four years. An NFL veteran, he was drafted by the Lions in 2007, and bounced around the league to a variety of teams for four years. Adams spent much of the Blue/Gold game standing behind the secondary, and taking every opportunity to teach the backs. He’s a born teacher, taking every opportunity to point out to defenders what they did, and how to do it better. After the game, he said “I think some guys have some talent. We just have to continue to work and get better. It was a good spring for a lot of guys. An opportunity to show what they can do. And some things we’ve got to improve on. It was a good spring for us.”
The offensive line, which had trouble protecting the passer last year, looked good on Saturday. Quarterbacks had time to make their reads, and their passes. William Crest did take a crunching hit in the second half that had him on the ground for a minute, but he was OK.
Josh Lambert, the starting kicker, has been suspended for the first three games of the 2016 season. Kicking in this game was done by Mike Molina, who was 3 for 3 on extra points. No field goals were attempted.
The defensive unit was given points for a variety of accomplishments: a three-and-out (5 points), stopping a drive (3 points), and scoring its own touchdowns (6 points). A turnover counted for three points. The offense scored in its usual ways, with touchdowns, field goals, extra points, and two-point conversions.
This year’s game was moved to The Greenbrier because of construction happening at Milan Puskar stadium in Morgantown. Next year’s game is expected to be held in Morgantown, though coach Holgorsen did make a joke after the game about getting lower rates at the Greenbrier for the players next year. The team stayed at the Quality Inn, not at the Greenbrier. Some amenities are too pricey for even an athletic budget.