MORGANTOWN, W.V. – Dana Holgorsen moved on from West Virginia to Houston after a successful eight-year run built around a powerful offense. With only nine starters returning, including just three on offense, new coach Neal Brown will have his work cut out for him on Saturday when FCS power James Madison comes calling in the opener for both teams.
TV: 2 p.m., AT&T Sportsnet. LINE: NL
Brown, who went 35-16 in four years at Troy, including 3-0 in bowl games, will have to replace quarterback Will Grier, who finished third on the West Virginia's all-time passing list with 7,354 yards while playing just two years, wide receivers David Sills V, Gary Jennings and Marcus Simms, who combined for 165 receptions, as well as Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year linebacker David Long (111 tackles, seven sacks, 19 tackles for loss). Brown hopes one of the solutions to his riddle is junior quarterback Austin Kendall, a transfer from Oklahoma who beat out three others for the starting job. "We tracked everything from spring practice through fall camp - decision making, completion percentage, number of turnovers, scoring drives - and that's at every spring practice all the way through fall camp," Brown said. "It was clear after (the final summer scrimmage) that Kendall earned it. James Madison, winning at least nine games for the fifth consecutive season, won't be a pushover, as the Dukes were ranked No. 2 in the STATS preseason FCS poll - the third consecutive season they've garnered a top-two preseason spot.
ABOUT JAMES MADISON (2018: 9-4)
First-year coach Curt Cignetti, who replaces Mike Houston (East Carolina), was 67-26 at Elon and Indiana (Pa.) and will have 19 returning starters. Senior and former Pitt quarterback Ben DiNucci returns after passing for 2,275 yards and 16 TDs, ranking third in FCS with a 68.3 completion percentage and rushing for 433 yards. The No. 6 defense in FCS (14.6 points, 289.5 yards) is led by senior linebacker Dimitri Holloway (127 tackles, 11 TFL), defensive lineman John Daka (10 sacks, 17 TFL) and 2017 All-American defensive back Rashad Robinson, an NFL prospect who missed last season with a foot injury.
ABOUT WEST VIRGINIA (2018: 8-4)
Kendall (28-of-39, 265 yards, three TDs, no interceptions in six games at Oklahoma over two years) beat out junior Jack Allison (23-of-45, 352 yards, one TD, two INT in 2018), redshirt freshman Trey Lowe III and Jarret Doege, a Bowling Green transfer who was ruled eligible for this season in mid-August. The projected starters at wide receiver combined for a mere 44 catches last season: T.J. Simmons had 28, Tevin Bush 14 and Sam James two in four games. Running back Kennedy McKoy, who rushed for 802 yards and eight TDs last season, has been a standout in summer practices, and Brown believes the senior is "sitting on a big year."
1. West Virginia has won both games in this series, including a 42-12 victory in 2012 when Geno Smith passed for 411 yards and five TDs.
2. The Mountaineers averaged 40.3 points (10th in FBS) and 512 yards last season (eighth) but return just two offensive lineman and McCoy to the starting lineup.
3. Projected starting LB VanDarius Cowan will have to sit the first four games due to NCAA eligibility issues. The sophomore played in seven games his freshman year with Alabama before transferring and sitting out last season.
PREDICTION: West Virginia 30, James Madison 21