MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The 2023 football season kicks off tonight when West Virginia faces seventh-ranked Penn State in a 7:30 p.m. matchup at Beaver Stadium.
Although a small number of tickets remain through secondary markets, the Mountaineers are expecting a large and boisterous crowd in what should be the most populated setting ever for a West Virginia football game, exceeding the 101,851 fans who watched West Virginia and Texas play in Austin in 2012.
Nittany Lion supporters believe this is coach James Franklin’s best team, and Franklin, coming off an 11-2 season and a Rose Bowl victory over Utah, has fueled their optimism by claiming his squad is “three-deep” at almost every position.
West Virginia coach Neal Brown won’t dispute that. Earlier this week he said the Nittany Lions have nine potential NFL draft picks on their defense alone. Personnel-wise, it could be the best team on the Mountaineer schedule this year.
The Lion defense has star power at all three levels with former Maryland transfer Chop Robinson leading the way up front. The defensive end, who wears No. 44, drew rave reviews from the West Virginia coaches earlier this week. Mountaineer offensive coordinator Chad Scott called Robinson “a blur” coming off the edge.
Weakside linebacker Abdul Carter, who wears No. 11, is another defender who has caught the coaching staff’s attention. In the secondary, junior Kalen King is a preseason AP All-America choice who mans the right corner position.
“It’s going to be a real tough environment to play in for West Virginia,” King predicted earlier this week. “The way our defense is, I feel like we’re going to set the tone. We’re going to keep the same hunger that we had previously, and we’re just going to go out there and do what we’re supposed to do.”
Offensively, Penn State boasts a pair of elite running backs in sophomores Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen. The two combined to rush for 1,928 yards and 22 touchdowns last season and will be running behind an outstanding offensive line that boasts a potential top 10 NFL draft pick in junior left tackle Olu Fashanu.
A rebuilt wide receiver corps will revolve around junior KeAndre Lambert-Smith, who caught an 88-yard touchdown pass in last year’s Rose Bowl, and Kent State transfer Dante Cephas, a two-time All-MAC choice with 2,139 career receiving yards to his credit.
Although Franklin has not named a starting quarterback, it’s expected to be highly touted sophomore Drew Allar, a pocket passer from Medina, Ohio. As a backup last year, he completed 58.3% of his 60 pass attempts for 344 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Franklin mentioned that Allar didn’t throw his first interception until practice 13 or 14, and King said there were only one or two turnovers during the entire preseason camp.
If Franklin wants a changeup, he could insert redshirt freshman Beau Pribula into the game to give the Lions a pass-run combo. West Virginia unsuccessfully tried to recruit the York, Pennsylvania, resident a couple of years ago.
The offensive line took a slight hit earlier this week when expected starting left guard Landon Tengwall announced he was giving up football for health reasons, meaning junior J.B. Nelson will likely move into his spot. Center Hunter Nourzad is another player who has caught the attention of the West Virginia coaches, Neal Brown calling him “underrated.”
One area to watch is special teams, where Penn State lost its starting kicker, punter and long snapper from last season.
West Virginia was predicted to finish last in the Big 12 Conference this year, but Brown said his team won’t end the season at the bottom of the league standings. He likes what he has returning along the offensive line and the backfield, where as many as four different players could see action tonight.
CJ Donaldson Jr., a 6-foot-1, 238-pound sophomore from Miami, is expected to get the start at running back while Justin Johnson Jr., Jaylen Anderson and true freshman Jahiem White could also get carries.
The wide receiver position must be rebuilt and should revolve around NC State transfer Devin Carter and senior Cortez Braham, a junior college transfer who played in 11 games last year and made two starts.
Brown also is predicting better play from his defense, which gave up an alarming 32.9 points and 412.3 yards per game last season. Transfer portal additions Anthony Wilson (Georgia Southern) and Beanie Bishop (Minnesota) are expected to bolster the secondary, while as many as nine different players could rotate between the three defensive line positions.
Brown, too, has not announced his starting quarterback, but it is likely going to be junior Garrett Greene, who appeared in nine games last year, completing 55.1% of his 78 pass attempts for 493 yards and five touchdowns. Greene also ran for 276 yards and five touchdowns, and his feet were the difference in West Virginia’s comeback victory over Oklahoma.
Touted redshirt freshman Nicco Marchiol could also see action.
West Virginia believes its special teams will be an area of strength this year with punter Oliver Straw returning and Georgia State place kicker Michael Hayes joining the program last January through the transfer portal. Long snapper Austin Brinkman is considered among the best in the country.
Penn State is encouraging its fans to wear white in all but two sections for its annual “Helmet Stripe” game which depicts the school’s iconic white helmet with a single navy stripe.
The game will be televised nationally on NBC (Noah Eagle, Todd Blackledge and Kathryn Tappen) and will kick off at 7:30 p.m.
Here is tonight’s Countdown to Kickoff:
10 – Five of WVU’s top TEN tackle for loss leaders return from last year’s team, including junior defensive end Sean Martin with eight TFLs.
9 – NINE players who registered at least 20 tackles return from last year, including the top three – Lee Kpogba (92), Aubrey Burks (66) and Marcis Floyd (64).
8 – WVU returns EIGHT players who caught at least one pass last year: Cortez Braham (14), Jeremiah Aaron (12), CJ Donaldson (nine), Justin Johnson Jr. (eight), Treylan Davis (five), Garrett Greene (four), Preston Fox (four) and Jaylen Anderson (one).
7 – West Virginia’s 132 combined starts returning at offensive line represents the SEVENTH most in college football. For the second year in a row, and the third time since 1995, three Mountain State natives will be starting up front: Zach Frazier (Fairmont), Doug Nester and Wyatt Milum (Kenova).
6 – The Mountaineers have produced SIX 1,000-yard rushers since joining the Big 12 in 2012, including five over the last eight seasons.
5 – Tonight will be West Virginia’s FIFTH season-opening game away from Milan Puskar Stadium since 2014. The Mountaineers lost to Alabama in Atlanta in 2014, lost to Virginia Tech in Landover, Maryland in 2017, defeated Tennessee in Charlotte in 2018, lost at Maryland in 2021 and lost at Pitt last year.
4 – The Mountaineers have lost just FOUR times under coach Neal Brown when rushing for more than 100 yards in a game. Overall, West Virginia is 18-4 in games when it has exceeded 100 yards on the ground.
3 – West Virginia is the only Power 5 school to open its season on the road for the THIRD straight year after opening at Maryland in 2021 and at Pitt last year.
2 – Tonight’s game will be the 60th all-time meeting between West Virginia and Penn State, making it tied with Syracuse for the SECOND-longest series in Mountaineer history. The Backyard Brawl against Pitt has been played 105 times.
1 – Tonight’s official attendance is expected to rank FIRST in WVU history, topping the 101,851 that watched West Virginia and Texas play on Oct. 6, 2012, in Austin, Texas.
Mountaineer Sports Network Coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. with the GoMart Mountaineer Tailgate Show leading into regular network coverage on the Coca-Cola Countdown to Kickoff with Tony Caridi, Dwight Wallace and Jed Drenning on many stations throughout West Virginia, online via WVUsports.com, and on the popular WVU Gameday and Varsity Network apps.
You can also follow the livestats coverage of tonight’s game as well.
Afterward, be sure to stop back for complete postgame coverage.