COLUMBIA — The run game performances delivered by Missouri and West Virginia last Saturday were uninspiring enough to make ESPN turn up its nose.
After the Tigers (0-1) flopped on the road at Wyoming and rushed 42 times for 114 yards, and the Mountaineers (1-0) barely edged out a talented but also FCS opponent in James Madison, rushing 24 times for 34 yards, the Worldwide Leader demoted this Saturday's 11 a.m. kickoff from its flagship network to ESPN2 in favor of Syracuse-Maryland.
As if either side needed added motivation to turn things around.
West Virginia looks like it has further ground to make up, at least in games. First-year head coach Neal Brown, formerly of Troy, Missouri's Week 5 opponent, said in his weekly press conference the team stuck to man blocking schemes in the run game, and his inexperienced offensive line were tentative as a trade-off for playing mistake-free.
That, paired with James Madison's willingness to play seven or eight in the box to stop the run, resulted in a disappointing first game for senior running backs Martell Pettaway and Kennedy McKoy, both of whom did not have a carry gain more than five yards.
"We've got to game plan better," Brown said to local media in West Virginia. "We went into the game thinking we could win those one-on-ones where we didn't have to necessarily try and trick them in the run game and that wasn't the case, so we've got to do a better job in the game-plan mode."
The Mountaineers also do not have the luxury of a dual-threat quarterback like Wyoming's Sean Chambers, who rushed for 120 yards on 12 carries against Missouri, most of it coming on a long 75-yard touchdown run. Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall was decent against the Dukes, with a line of 27-for-42 for 260 yards, two scores and no turnovers. He ran the ball three times for a net gain of zero yards.
Wide receivers Tevin Bush and George Campbell each caught a touchdown pass, with Bush's four catches for 74 yards leading the way in the receiving corps. Kendall targeted Sam James 11 times against James Madison, and James finished with six catches for 32 yards, while McKoy is West Virginia's pass-catching back, with seven targets and six receptions for 18 yards.
Simply put, this Mountaineers team will throw more Saturday than Missouri's defense saw in Laramie.
That might be a good thing, as the Tigers gave up almost 300 rushing yards and 7.1 yards per carry, but apart from the long runs from Chambers and Xazavian Valladay (who Pro Football Focus calculated had 102 of his 118 yards after contact), Missouri was pretty good against the run and would have given up 161 rushing yards on 40 carries without those touchdown runs of 75 and 61 yards, much more respectable numbers. Of course, those runs aren't coming off the board. They count. But the Tigers' run defense wasn't abysmal in Week 1.
It will certainly be the first real test this season for a secondary that has generated preseason buzz, particularly for cornerbacks DeMarkus Acy and Christian Holmes. Chambers completed just 6-of-16 passes but for an average of 15.3 yards, and if Kendall's yards per attempt look anywhere close to that, while also completing better than 50 percent of his passes, Missouri is in real trouble.
The Tigers can make it easier on themselves if they win, or at least break even, in the turnover battle. Two red zone turnovers (and an offensive pass interference call on tight end Albert Okwuegbunam that negated a touchdown) left a likely 10 points points on the board and Missouri lost by six despite a minus-3 mark in turnovers because Wyoming turned those giveaways into 17 points.
The reverse was basically true for West Virginia, which did not start a possession in the red zone and won by seven despite a plus-3 turnover margin and seven points scored off those turnovers.