NORMAN, Okla. — Forget about the stats.
West Virginia is not in win-now mode, as Saturday’s 52-14 drubbing at Oklahoma pounded home for anyone somehow still unaware this is the case. This is a young football team being thrown into a shark tank with a wetsuit made out of chum.
For a group of players realistically vying to turn West Virginia back into a winner circa 2021, leadership and toughness are the necessary traits required to ride through the present choppy waters. And quarterback Austin Kendall delivers those qualities in quantities that could be packaged up and sold at a Costco.
A week ago, Kendall couldn’t even lift his arm above his head as he staggered to the sidelines after getting crushed by an Iowa State blitzer, throwing his right pectoral muscle out of whack. Doesn’t mean he didn’t try to get back in, though.
“I tried throwing, I just didn’t have any kind of velocity on the ball,” Kendall said. “I even tried to go back out there, but they were like ‘We’re not going to put you back out there if you can’t even throw a 10-yard out-route because it’s just going to turn out bad.’ I agreed with them, so I just cheered on my teammates.”
On Tuesday, Brown declared that Kendall wasn’t going to play unless he was 100 percent. Contingency plans were made, including one with a heavy dosage of Trey Lowe. (There was also a plan for a light dosage of Lowe even with Kendall starting, but Oklahoma got ahead too quickly for the Mountaineers to use that plan).
“Coach Brown was like if you’re not 100 percent, you’re not playing in this game,” Kendall said. “So I did everything I could to feel 100 percent.”
The following day Kendall convinced Brown he was ready to go even if it meant adding a percentage point or 20 to how he was actually feeling.
“Wednesday I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m 100 percent, coach,’” Kendall said.
Kendall says the credit goes to West Virginia’s training staff, and of course that’s true. But he has plenty to do with it, too. He’s been playing with a sleeve over his left knee all season. He’s had to wrap his throwing hand since getting stitches in the Missouri game. He even had to spend a stint in the hospital when that cut got infected the week prior playing Texas.
“He’s a tough kid,” said co-offensive coordinator Matt Moore. “He was so bound and determined to play this game. He wasn’t going to back down. He wanted to come compete against his old teammates, and you’ve got to respect that.”
When West Virginia’s coaching staff spoke of contingency plans on Tuesday, they weren’t blowing smoke to distract the Sooners. They really doubted that Kendall could play. He showed them otherwise.
“He had every opportunity to say ‘Oh no, my arm hurts. I’m not going to play this week,’” Moore said. “But that’s not the kind of kid he is. He’s a competitor. He didn’t care that it was a Top-5 nationally ranked team. He was going to come here and compete. And he did. He competed hard. I really respect that kid. A really tough kid.”
The numbers don’t show that Kendall did anything extraordinary. He completed less than 50 percent of his passes (15 of 31) and finished with 182 passing yards — though as has been the case every game this year, he was also plagued by drops from his inexperienced receivers.
He was also hurt by the fact Oklahoma could play the pass pretty much every down in the second half. West Virginia’s running game continues to be stuck in the mud as the Mountaineers finished with 51 yards on 30 carries.
Those numbers don’t matter as much as this: Kendall is teaching West Virginia’s freshmen what a gamer looks like. If they’re paying attention, there will come a day when that lesson pays off.