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Despite ugly Heart of Dallas Bowl, 2018 full of potential for Mountaineers

NCAA Football: Heart of Dallas Bowl-Utah vs West Virginia

At one point Tuesday afternoon, I was concerned the mist and fog surrounding the Cotton Bowl would invade the playing field, turning the Heart of Dallas Bowl into a replay of that Patriots-Falcons game from earlier this season (I’d make a ‘Fog Bowl’ reference here, but I was 15 or 16 for that game so I won’t make you search for the reference).

Turns out adding fog to the equation would have been unfair to West Virginia. The Mountaineers were already having enough problems.
It was, simply put, one of the worst bowl games I’ve ever seen. I’ve been to plenty. And it wasn’t just because of the light crowd (it was announced as 20,000-plus, but let’s be real …)

I don’t blame you for not coming if you didn’t. I’ve lived in Texas practically my entire life and December is fickle. I was chatting with the guy that drove me in from the parking lot and we were talking about how it was mid-70s just five days before. Heck, the day before the game was beautiful — mid-50s but sunny. The day-after-Christmas date didn’t help matters from a crowd standpoint.

But the Mountaineers were just plain bad. Sure, there were players missing (quarterback Will Grier, running back Justin Crawford and offensive guard Kyle Bosch, most notably). But the Mountaineer offense simply didn’t adjust to those losses. The offensive play-calling was unimaginative and the execution was uninspired. They called plays as if Grier was at quarterback, not Chris Chugunov. That violates a clear coaching point I’ve heard from coaches all my life — tailor your game plan to the players you have, not the players you don’t.

The defense did what it could, and for three quarters I thought the unit played very well, until it suffered under the weight of the offense’s general ineptitude in the final 15 minutes. Linebacker David Long Jr. was exceptional.

So that was all bad. There is no question about it. But the calendar turns to 2018 in just a few days and if I’m a Mountaineers fan I feel pretty good about this team, so long as you can see through those gray skies in Dallas.

Grier took a pass on the NFL and will be back in 2018. That’s a smart decision on his part and it should lead to him being a high pick next year. His injured finger should be healed soon. WR David Sills V did the same, which means one of college football’s most prolific passing combos will be back.

In fact, West Virginia’s two-deep roster for the game featured 31 of 42 players that should be back next year and just three positions with no two-deep depth returning — right guard, mike linebacker and spur. Of course, those are three HUGE losses for the Mountaineers — guard Kyle Bosch (who did not play in the bowl game), linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton and safety Kyzir White.

Additionally, the Mountaineers have already signed three Top 300 players, including quarterback Woodrow Lowe III, who could end up looking like a long-term answer at the position after Tuesday’s game.

What was advantageous to the Mountaineers for this bowl game was the extra 15 practices. Yes, that didn’t translate on the field on Tuesday. But it should have given them a head start on next year, and that’s really what coaches hope for when they reach a bowl game like this.

The fact is I think the Mountaineers have enough talent to make a run at a berth in the Big 12 title game next year. Grier is the best returning quarterback in the conference and that’s the launching pad. But the Mountaineers still have talent to develop in the trenches and find capable replacements for Benton and White.

Benton spoke for the defense on Tuesday. And he spoke about the future, a future that he won’t be a part of as he’s out of eligibility. He sees the possibilities ahead.

“I think there’s a lot of promise on this team,” Benton said.

But he extended a caveat. It’s up to the Mountaineers now to make it happen.

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