By Ryan Decker, Originally published for West Virginia Illustrated
Although the Mountaineers returned four offensive players who started every game in 2015, and nine others who started at least one game, a WVU defense featuring just six players who started at least one game a season ago has been a focal point, especially when on the other side is a Tigers defense that returned six of its seven leading tacklers from the 2015 campaign.
However, it was the West Virginia defense that looked reminiscent of the unit from a year ago, not Missouri’s, as the Mountaineers kept Missouri off the scoreboard for most of the game in a 26-11 victory to open the 2016 season.
“We got some seniors, we got some older guys, we got some guys with experience,” WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said, “but you’re going to play about 55 guys in a game, and about 25-30 of those guys suited up for the first time.
“I thought our defense did a great job.”
West Virginia was able to move the ball down field effectively on its second drive, as Skyler Howard connected with Dakiel Shorts twice, including a 19-yard strike. WVU’s offense stalled, though, once inside the red zone; Howard getting stood up at the two-yard line and forcing Mike Molina to put the first points of the season on the board with a short field goal.
The Mountaineer offense managed to find the end zone next time out.
Justin Crawford converted on a third and short with a 29-yard run, busting through the right side of the line. Three plays later, Rushel Shell ripped off a long run of his own, 23 yards to pay dirt for the first touchdown of the season.
West Virginia led 10-0 after the first quarter of play.
Crawford, making his Mountaineer debut, rushed for 101 yards on 21 carries. Shell added 90 yards on the ground, each scoring touchdown.
After the defense forced a turnover with a fumble, Howard completed passes to Shorts twice more, this time including a 29-yard pass and catch that put the Mountaineers on the Missouri 30-yard line.
“Anytime Dakiel (Shorts) gets open, he’s our most consistent guy,” Holgorsen said.
Once again, though, the offense stalled inside the 20, bringing Molina back on the field to kick his second field goal.
West Virginia led by 13 points midway through the second quarter.
Missouri’s offense, not wanting to fall too far behind, began to find its rhythm.
For the second time in the first half, Drew Lock found his top receiver, J’Mon Moore, this time for a 42-yard strike that moved Mizzou well-inside WVU territory.
Lock completed his next pass attempt, getting his team to the 19-yard line, but after that the Mountaineer defense tightened up, and a crucial penalty on third down aided the effort for WVU.
Missouri was forced to settle for a field goal.
Late in the first half, with West Virginia back up deep inside it’s own territory, Howard was injured while sliding, bringing William Crest Jr. into the game. On Crest’s second play from scrimmage, the football fell out of his hand and Marcell Frazier fell on it at the seven-yard line.
Tony Gibson’s defense stood its ground, stopping the Tigers on three consecutive plays. Mizzou kicker Tucker McCann then missed the ensuing field goal, keeping the Tigers deficit at 10 points.
West Virginia led 13-3 at the half.
Howard came out to start the second half, handing the ball off twice to Shell – both for positive gains – and then completed a swing pass to Shell coming out of the backfield that went for a first down.
Two plays later, Howard completed a pass to Shorts for another big gain of 24 yards. That catch put Shorts over 100 yards receiving for the game.
“(Missouri) knows like everybody else our outside guys are definitely vertical threats,” Shorts said. “They tried to take that away and that left the middle open for me and helped me out a lot.”
Shorts finished the game with 131 receiving yards on eight catches.
Three plays after that, Crawford scampered into the end zone from one yard out for the touchdown, giving WVU a 20-3 lead following the point after.
West Virginia’s defense showed up big time in the second quarter, only allowing Missouri to gain 50 yards and not giving up any points.
Missouri, continuing to shuffle quarterbacks, moved the ball down field early on in the fourth quarter, getting as far down as the 16-yard line of WVU.
The defense once again cranked up the pressure to slow the Tiger’s progress. On third and six, Justin Arndt ran untouched straight to Lock, sacking the quarterback with a monstrous hit setting up fourth down.
“I though (Arndt) performed well,” Tony Gibson said. “The kid just does everything right. I see him in practice and our offense struggles blocking him. When I called that blitz, and I saw that formation, I watched one person – my eyes were glued on him – because I knew with the protection they were getting ready to use he was going to be the free guy.”
Asked if Arndt had earned a start next week, Gibson responded, “It’s his job. Someone’s going to have to take it from him.”
McCann, a freshman, missed his second field goal of the game, keeping Missouri locked at just three points.
The sack and missed field goal appeared to ignite the offense, as Howard completed a pair of passes to Shelton Gibson and another to Shorts, getting down to the 10-yard line.
However, red zone problems continued, and Molina converted his fourth field goal attempt of the game, pushing WVU ahead 26-3.
“Twenty six (points) was enough to win this one,” Holgorsen said of the offense, “Twenty six might be good enough the next week, and the following week, whatever it is. But there’s going to be times where those field goals need to be touchdowns.”
Howard completed 23 of his 35 pass attempts for 253 yards, throwing one interception.
Missouri, attempting to mount a late comeback, scored a touchdown with under two minutes remaining, and converted on the two-point conversion, drawing within 26-11. The Tigers then recovered the onside kick, and marched quickly downfield to get inside the 10-yard line.
West Virginia’s defense tightened up one more time, getting the stop and forcing incompletions on third and fourth down.
For West Virginia, the 494 total yards of offense surpasses any single-game total that the Tiger defense surrendered a season ago. For Missouri, the loss ends a 14-year streak of beginning its season with a victory.