Ahead of Virginia Tech's Black Diamond Trophy showdown with West Virginia, Michael Miller, the managing editor of SB Nation's Smoking Musket covering WVU, joined us for a Q&A breaking down the Mountaineers and sharing it with Hokie fans to prepare you for what challenges WVU will present.
With that said, here's our Q&A going inside the enemy: West Virginia edition.
1. What has helped WVU's offense make significant strides this year and how much of that is due to Graham Harrell as OC and JT Daniels at QB?
I don’t want to say Graham Harrell and JT Daniels are 100% responsible for the improvement we’ve seen on offense because there are guys like Bryce Ford-Wheaton that have gotten better year-over-year, but I don’t think they have this success without the Harrell/Daniels combo.
You also have to give some credit to the true freshman running back/tight end hybrid that Neal Brown spent all summer raving about, CJ Donaldson, who has come in and just been a joy to watch through three games.
2. What makes Bryce Ford-Wheaton and CJ Donaldson challenging to contain and defend?
It’s size, for both of them. Bryce is 6’3” and is just a bad matchup for most defenders. He also has a special connection with JT Daniels, almost to the level that West Virginia fans have seen in the past between Geno Smith/Stedman Bailey and Will Grier/David Sills. There’s a lot of trust built up there between them and Daniels knows he can count on Ford-Wheaton to be where he needs him to be.
CJ Donaldson is 6’2”, 240lbs, and a nightmare to stop once he gets moving, but he’s raw. Donaldson had never played running back before this summer, so the vision isn’t necessarily where it needs to be when it comes to choosing which gap to hit but that’s mostly been offset by his ability to just run people over. He’s currently No. 2 in the country with 6 touchdowns through three games and is averaging 9.4 yards per carry. I think there’s enough tape of Donaldson available now, so I’m curious to see if his production holds up as the Mountaineers enter the conference schedule.
3. Why has WVU's defense gotten off to a slow start this season and what needs to change for them to find their rhythm?
The Mountaineers lost their All-Big 12 cornerback, Charles Woods, about 12 plays into the Backyard Brawl, which was the worst-case scenario for a unit that has had a lot of turnover with transfers out of the program. The secondary has not been great in his absence, which has led to defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley moving a few guys up and down the depth chart this week.
I believe a lot of the issues on defense have been more mental than they are physical. The talent is there, but it feels like they’ve just got the lid on too tight, so to speak. There’s a lot of overthinking going on and it’s leading to a lot of missed assignments.
4. How much pressure is there on Neal Brown to win this game and what would both a win and a loss mean for his future in Morgantown?
This is arguably the most important game in Neal Brown’s tenure, but that’s also going to be said about nearly every game remaining on West Virginia’s schedule. If the Mountaineers win, Neal’s seat will cool off a bit, aided partially by the fact that the loss to Kansas doesn’t look as bad now as it did. He won’t be out of the woods, but I think almost any scenario where West Virginia turns it around has to start with a win on Thursday.
A loss doesn’t guarantee that West Virginia will hop on the coaching carousel later this season, but the road ahead doesn’t get any easier and there will be plenty of unrest amongst the WVU fanbase. A close loss warms the seat up to a low boil, a blowout loss turns it to lava.
5. Who is your x-factor in this matchup for WVU?
West Virginia is going to need someone from the defensive front not named Dante Stills to step up to Dante’s level to help keep consistent pressure on Grant Wells. I specifically have guys like Jordan Jefferson and Lee Kpogba in mind, as they’ve shown flashes this season but they’re not quite at the level WVU needs them to be quite yet. If the Mountaineers can keep pressure on Wells and record a couple tackles for loss to back the Hokies up on first and second down, I like their chances.
Something else I’m watching is how Doug Nester and James Gmiter handle Virginia Tech’s pressure on the interior of the line. If they can handle Dax Hollifield, it should open up some room for Tony Mathis and CJ Donaldson to break a couple of big runs.
6. If WVU does "_______" against Virginia Tech, they will definitely win or definitely lose?
At the end of the night, the story of the game for West Virginia is going to be the defense, one way or the other. If Jordan Lesley’s unit can create just a couple extra opportunities to put the ball back into JT Daniels’ hands, I feel certain they can escape with the win. If it’s another unit collapse like we saw against Kansas in Morgantown, it’s going to be a long night for those of us that are traveling to Blacksburg.
7. What's your pick for VT-WVU?
I’m pinning a lot of hope, personally, on West Virginia’s defense to just be decent. West Virginia’s offense is one of the best in the country. They’ve scored 17 touchdowns on 22 possessions since the start of the second quarter of the Backyard Brawl. I think Virginia Tech’s defense is good, but I don’t think they’ve been tested the way WVU will test them on Thursday. If the Mountaineer defense can be just good enough to keep the Hokies from scoring on two or three drives, I think they win this one and keep the Black Diamond Trophy in Morgantown as this rivalry goes on hiatus again. 38-27, West Virginia.