INSTITUTE, W.Va. -- The sluggish offense, playing amid drizzle and mud, didn't pick up a first down until midway through the second quarter and posed only one scoring threat the whole day.
Such shortcomings are understandable and indeed inevitable, for now at least, in these embryonic days of coach Jon Anderson's restructuring of the West Virginia State football program.
The Yellow Jackets, at least, kept West Liberty out of the end zone in Saturday afternoon's home opener, but the Hilltoppers kicked three first-half field goals and collected a 9-0 victory at Lakin Field. About 300 fans attended.
Unlike the Jackets' first two games - a 31-13 loss at Lock Haven (Pa.) and a 36-3 pummeling at Concord - State's first-year coach did not see any glaring troubles.
"We didn't have that tragic meltdown that we've had in the past,'' said Anderson, a Missouri native. "We didn't have that breakdown, and we didn't fall apart like we did in the first two games, so I think we're making progress. I was proud of the way the guys played all the way through and fought hard. I was really happy with the way our defense kept giving chances to our offense. In the past two games, we had a quarter or two quarters where the wheels fell off in different phases of our game - bad mistakes, loss of focus. And I didn't feel we did that today.''
"We're getting better,'' added sophomore defensive back Will Merritt of Cincinnati, who intercepted a pass and was involved in 15 tackles. "We just have to adjust week in and week out and get better. As a program, the sky's the limit. We just have to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and everything will be fine.''
The Jackets totaled only 142 yards of offense and six first downs and turned the ball over three times but nevertheless tried to make a game of it when Mitchell Rowell, a freshman linebacker, recovered a Hilltopper fumble at the WL 20 with 10:50 left in the third quarter.
Two plays later, the Jackets (0-3) had a first-and-goal at the WL 9, but the drive ended when Hilltopper cornerback Rod White intercepted a Tyler Seals pass in the end zone.
Roger Waialae, West Liberty's ninth-year coach, can relate to Anderson's challenge.
"I was in Jon's shoes one time, back in 2005,'' said Waialae. "It doesn't happen overnight for anyone, but I see improvement. He's doing a lot of good things. And obviously with the facilities upgrades, it's going to help him recruiting-wise. He's doing a great job. Anytime you take over a new program, no matter whether it's good, bad or indifferent, you have to get the type of players you want and what matches your system. And sometimes you inherit players that are built for another system.''
If everything goes as planned on the Institute campus, the muddy conditions and sluggish offense may soon be memories. Sometime next year, the school hopes to open a Lakin Field football complex that will house a locker room, workout facilities, meeting rooms and coaches' offices. And a turf field is also in the planning stages. Such things should beef up recruiting.