Mountaineer Gameday: WVU needs rushing attack to join aerial assault
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Maybe, just maybe, once Dana Holgorsen finds a running back, West Virginia will have a ground game to go with its aerial show.
Yes, it's different to watch WVU football and not view the Mountaineers running through, around and past some opponents, but it's yet to happen.
Not that it's been needed, with guys like quarterback Geno Smith and receivers like Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey offering Wallendas-type thrills.
In its 3-1 start, WVU has rushed for 42 (Marshall), 102 (Norfolk State), 92 (Maryland) and 70 (LSU) yards. That's 306 yards, or 2.7 per rush and 76.5 per game. Fifty-three major college individual rushers have topped 306.
The Mountaineers rank 115th in rushing offense. Only BYU, Idaho, Miami (Ohio), Arizona and Florida Atlantic have gotten less on the ground.
Here's the deal. West Virginia proved it can move the ball with 533 yards in Saturday's loss to then-No. 2 LSU. It's the highest total offense figure in the Big East against a BCS-level foe this season (topped only by South Florida's 575 in Saturday's win over UTEP).
However, if the Mountaineers are going to beat really good teams like the Tigers - and they may not play one until going to nationally ranked USF for the regular-season finale - they'll need an improved ground game to move the chains and run the clock.
WVU is only 101st of 120 major teams in time of possession average in 2011.
Imagine what WVU's offense might be if it can get the run game off the ground. Right now, the Mountaineers are getting less than 17 percent of their yardage rushing, although 37 percent of the offensive plays have been runs.
Dustin Garrison offered a glimmer of hope for WVU's ground attack with 46 yards in 10 carries against LSU. Garrison came into the LSU game with only three carries on the season. His 17-yard run in the first half was WVU's longest this season. How un-Mountaineer-ish is that?
"He's a quick guy," WVU left tackle Don Barclay said of Garrison, who figures to get more opportunities against Bowling Green (3-1) on Saturday.
"He's a quick guy. He's not the biggest guy, but he loves football, he's quick and he's going to get the job done."
The Mountaineers obviously missed fellow true freshman Andrew Buie, who was a DNP for the LSU game with an injury. A third freshman, Vernard Roberts, leads WVU with 121 yards, and after two games out injured, 220-pound Shawne Alston has given Holgorsen's offense a needed bigger back - but he's had only 10 carries.
"It depends on if you have three freshmen or if you have an All-American back out there," Holgorsen said earlier this week. "We're searching for guys that are every-down backs, which we don't have yet. Dustin came in last week and gave us a half of really good football. His production in one half of football was as good a performance we've had in one half this year.
"When you had a guy like Kendall Hunter (Oklahoma State), who's about to start for the 49ers, that means you have to give it to that guy a little more. We'll get to the point that we trust those guys more and give them the ball more.
"The offensive line did a heck of a job at blocking (against LSU). Pass protection was great last week. Run blocking was relatively good. We're still missing a guy that can burst through a hole and get through it."
Garrison might be the guy.
"We just have to step up and make more plays," Garrison said after the LSU loss. "Honestly, it's the backs. The holes are there. The linemen are doing a good job. We've just got to execute. We have to go out there and run with a purpose."
There still are plenty of questions about WVU's offensive line play, however, despite a superb job of pass blocking for Smith - no sacks - against LSU's tough defense.
West Virginia lost starter Eric Jobe from last season, and this year's returning cast was hurt when guard Josh Jenkins needed additional surgery on a knee injury suffered in the spring. The loss of the Parkersburg product and his 24 career starts also diminished WVU's line depth.
WVU has 88 career starts in the front five that will start against the Falcons, led by Barclay's 31, but the Mountaineers' offensive line hasn't had a noticeable dropoff in talent and performance.
The Mountaineers' last All-Big East first team selection was tackle Ryan Stanchek, a Football Writers' (FWAA) All-America pick in 2008. He was the last of nine All-Big East first team choices - led by three-timer and All-America center Dan Mozes - for West Virginia over a five-year span (2004-08).
The running game also has slipped precipitously during that time, despite the Mountaineers having Noel Devine through last season. From 2003-08, West Virginia ranked between Nos. 2 and 15 in rush offense. The ranking in 2009 was 24, then 50, and now 115.
First-year WVU line coach Bill Bedenbaugh is trying to build a unit that needs a boost in this recruiting class, with Barclay and fifth-year guard Tyler Rader of Nitro as senior starters.
It is a more aggressive unit than it was under the technique-dominated teaching of former line coach Dave Johnson, but it can't help that WVU is on its fourth line coach in six years.
"We need to finish our blocks," Rader said recently when asked about the offensive line and its early season play. "We've been doing a good job getting on blocks, but not finishing, burying people, knocking them down, do things good O-line should do.
"I don't think it hasn't been as good (the quality of line play); it's just different systems. Coach Johnson stressed a lot more technique. Not that he didn't want you to play physical, but you had to be technically sound.
"Coach Bedenbaugh kind of reminds me more of Coach (Greg) Frey (the 2007 line coach for Rich Rodriguez, after Rick Trickett left for Florida State). I wasn't here with Trickett, but he also stressed technique. That is big, but (Bedenbaugh) stresses you getting on people, just road-grade when you get into the running game, just finish people and get in there and knock heads.
"It's not a lack of talent at all. I don't think it's recruiting. Some things you don't have control over. Guys transfer out; some get hurt. It's just one of those things, just some of the evils of playing football."
The running game, like that offensive line development under Bedenbaugh, remains a work in progress.
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I DON'T think McDonald's has a sponsorship with Big East Conference football, but maybe the golden arches guys should consider it. After all, the conference is having a big MAC attack this season.
One season after losing whatever little football oomph it has, the Big East is loading up on Mid-American Conference foes.
The Bowling Green visit Saturday to West Virginia is one of nine games between the two leagues this season, including three this weekend (also Western Michigan-Connecticut and Cincinnati-Miami of Ohio).
That's up from four Big East-MAC dates last season.
The eight Big East schools combine to play 40 non-conference games. Every team has beaten one lower-division FCS foe. So, MAC opponents make up 28 percent of the Big East's major non-conference schedule (9 of 32 games).
You can make the case that the Big East's toughest schedule belongs to Pitt, since the Panthers are the only club facing three BCS-level foes (Notre Dame, Iowa, Utah) in non-league play.
The others, except Rutgers, have two. The Scarlet Knights' only BCS opponent outside the league was a loss at North Carolina. Rutgers' other major college non-league dates are with Ohio (an RU win) and games to come against Navy and Army.