Mountaineer Gameday: Bowling Green tough to beat when it stops rush
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The Bowling Green defense that No. 22 West Virginia will see Saturday afternoon at Mountaineer Field has been pretty good this season.
It ranks No. 22 in total defense, No. 35 in scoring defense and No. 11 in pass efficiency defense, all of which are valuable for the Falcons as they play the pass prone Mountaineers at 3:30 p.m. (ROOT Sports telecast).
Absent from that list is the Bowling Green rush defense, which is No. 27 and allows just 95 yards per game and is powered by the unusual 4-2-5 alignment and some pretty good defensive linemen.
It's a rare luxury for the Falcons (3-1), who were No. 112 of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams against the run in 2010 and No. 103 in 2009, both times at right around 200 yards per game for third-year Coach Dave Clawson.
Honestly, the Falcons haven't been a very good run defense through the years and the success this season belies the youth on the depth chart. Yet when Bowling Green has been good against the run, it's been a winner.
Clawson's teams are 5-0 when they allow fewer than 100 yards rushing. Just five times in 28 games, but no losses in those five games, either. This is worth mentioning because first-year Coach Dana Holgorsen has only seen his Mountaineers offense run for 100 yards once in four games this season - and that 102-yard explosion for the 115th-ranked rushing offense came against the FCS's Norfolk State, which is now 3-1 and allows 76 yards per game on the ground.
The Mountaineers (3-1) are averaging just 76.5 yards per game and 2.73 yards per carry, but feel like they approaching the breakthrough.
"I think our running game is getting there," quarterback Geno Smith said. "We had young backs and they're still young, but they're starting to see it quicker now. This game is faster and we tend to forget that. Those guys didn't expect to have that weight on their shoulders, but we're starting to see them hit holes faster and run harder now."
WVU gained 70 yards and averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in the most recent game, which was a 47-21 loss, but a 47-21 loss to one of the best defenses in the country.
Optimism was generated in those 22 carries against No. 1 LSU, in those 65 pass attempts that never once resulted in a sack, in that time the offense hurried up throughout a drive that ended with Dustin Garrison's 1-yard touchdown run.
When the Mountaineers lined up for the extra point, center Joey Madsen looked down along the line of scrimmage and saw the Tigers breathing heavy and fighting for deep breaths.
"We were fine," he said.
If the offense can play with a high tempo, if the running backs can turn rare carries into purposeful plays, if Smith can pass without duress, then the offensive linemen are doing their jobs. That's what they took out of a performance hailed as "fantastic" by Smith and Holgorsen.
"It's validation," Madsen said. "We always knew we had it in us. We had to prove it and we came out and proved it."
WVU will gauge success running the ball differently now than it has with past coaches.
Don Nehlen featured the run to control the game in a professional offense. Rich Rodriguez was almost unbeatable when his teams reached 300 yards. Bill Stewart was more balanced, but leveraged the run against the pass defense and pass against the run defense.
For Holgorsen, it's more about attempts than yards. It's about success in situations than it is about sustaining success throughout.
Will 70 yards win important games against impressive defenses? The establishment, the one that points to the game's history of balanced offenses and the need to run the ball when in the lead or at the end of the game, would argue no.
Then again, suppose WVU ran the ball for 110 yards against LSU. Wouldn't that have required many more running plays against a stubborn run defense? And wouldn't those have been plays that asked Smith to use his right arm to hand the ball off rather than pass it?
That's an idea that is frowned upon in this offense.
"We weren't going to just pound the ball at them," WVU offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh said. "Nobody does that. They've got big guys who are physical and stop the run. What we did do was open some holes - and they closed pretty quickly."
Yet West Virginia made the most out of what were literally slim chances.
"The thing our backs did a great job of was getting the yards that we there," Bedenbaugh said. "It's hard to bust a long run on (LSU), but we were efficient in the running game. I think we had one or two negative runs. A week before (LSU) had 18 and that was against a Mississippi State team averaging about 320 yards per game.
"We were efficient. We got first downs when we needed them and we ran the ball just enough to keep them off balance."
The linemen were much better, though, and that was to be expected, not because they were maintaining it would eventually happen, but because they needed time to make it happen.
Remember, right tackle Pat Eger and right guard Tyler Rader are first-time players, let alone first-time starters. Left guard Jeff Braun was a right tackle last year. He and veteran left tackle Don Barclay were coming back from shoulder surgery that kept them out of spring practice.
Three games was an unusually, unfairly short amount of time to allow five players to learn to play as one.
"They've been getting better every week," Bedenbaugh said. "From the first game to this game, they got better. Everyone makes a big deal out of the opponent and they think they're this or they think they're that, but what we stress is that it doesn't matter who we play.
"We're good enough that if we prepare, if we go practice like we're supposed to and play like we're supposed to, we'll be fine."