WVU football: On third down, Alston may be answer for No. 16 Mountaineers
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The box score says Shawne Alston played for the first time this season against Maryland and carried six times for 21 yards.
Alston, who has barely practiced through spring, summer and 2011 football at West Virginia, measured his performance differently.
"I was 2-for-4," he said.
The 5-foot-11, 220-pound junior was thought to be the solution to WVU's short-yardage and goal-line issues that popped up in its first two games. Alston did his job twice, but came up short twice.
"The thing about him - and it has nothing to do with ability or any of that - is he's slow-footed," Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "He doesn't hit that hole like we want him to, which is why he's not a starter. If there's nothing there, he's not going to move a pile of bodies three yards and get that first down, which is now what quote-unquote big backs do.
"What he brings - and it's because he's one of the few guys we have that has experience - is maturity. Being in that situation doesn't phase him much because he's been there before."
Holgorsen, who has been leaning on three freshmen in the backfield, had been looking forward to that addition. Alston was finally cleared to play last week after he was hurt in the winter.
"I was sitting at a red light and a drunk driver hit me from the back," Alston said.
He went to the hospital for all the necessary tests after the incident and was discharged a few hours later. Alston thought everything was fine until he woke up two days later in great pain. So began a long road back to where he left off last season.
Alston, from Hampton, Va., ran 17 times for 75 yards in November against Cincinnati and then led the way with 16 carries and 71 yards two weeks later against Pitt.
"I never thought it would take this long," he said. "They diagnosed me with whiplash and the trainers thought I should be back soon enough. But football is a real violent sport. If I was an ordinary person I would have been OK, but when you're banging your head, it's a different story."
Just a few weeks ago, Alston couldn't handle contact and it hurt for him to even put on his helmet. It really stung when he saw the offense falter in the red zone and at the goal line when the Mountaineers needed only a yard or two to get a first down or a touchdown.
"It was frustrating because I'm the type of person who thinks he can change that," he said. "We did a good job running the ball, but we've got a lot of young guys back there not executing. They'll get better as the games go on. We'll be able to run better."
Sure enough, Alston was asked to fix things on a third-and-2 on WVU's first drive. He gained seven yards and the Mountaineers were on their way until Andrew Buie carried two plays later and lost a fumble.
"I was ready to get the ball finally," Alston said. "Sitting on the sideline all that time was no fun."
Alston popped up to check himself out and realized nothing was wrong after taking that first hit.
"It was different," he said. "It felt good for a change."
He'd gain six yards on a third-and-2 later, but just two yards on a fourth-and-2 and then one yard on a third-and-2 before a punt.
"I don't know if I changed things, but I attempted to change things," he said. "Every week it's going to get better."
The 16th-ranked Mountaineers (3-0) could use it Saturday night against No. 2 LSU (3-0). In last year's loss in Baton Rouge, La., WVU was 2-for-13 on third down and 0-for-3 when the offense needed two yards or fewer for a first down.
Quarterback Geno Smith threw an interception, Ryan Clarke ran for no gain and Smith sneaked for no gain, that on a key third-and-2 late in the fourth quarter of the 20-14 loss.
The Tigers, who play their first game at Mountaineer Field at 8 p.m. on ABC, are allowing just 47.4 yards per game and 1.6 per carry. Both are the third-best averages in the country.
The Mountaineers are No. 107 in rushing offense (78.7 yards per game) and average 2.6 yards per carry, but they've gotten the first down five times on the seven third downs when they need three yards or fewer.
Holgorsen vowed last week the offensive line would play better and finish blocks against the Terrapins to create gaps for the running game. WVU rushed for 92 yards, including 51 on seven carries by Buie. He had a 10-yard touchdown run and Vernard Roberts added a 9-yard run while center Joe Madsen was named the team's offensive player of the week.
Holgorsen said they proved their point, but acknowledged a different challenge faced his team this week.
"They have as good a defensive line as anybody does in the country," Holgorsen said. "They've got eight or nine guys they roll in there and they all look the same to me. I know we're not going to be able to wear them down because of their depth. We just have to execute and do the best we can to hang on."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.