MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Two Saturdays ago, West Virginia entered a home game against Baylor knowing Shawne Alston could not play and that Dustin Garrison could not yet be the player he was last season, when he led the team in rushing as a freshman before tearing his left ACL in December.
The Mountaineers were left with one able and reliable running back and Coach Dana Holgorsen knew better than to lean too heavily on Andrew Buie, a sophomore who had a habit of getting hit hard last season and couldn't stay healthy as a result.
The nation saw Geno Smith throw the ball 51 times and set school records with 656 yards and eight touchdowns passing against Baylor. Defensive coordinators saw something else.
The Mountaineers featured a fire-receiver set. This was new, even if the formation was not. In the past, WVU had used an empty backfield with Smith in the shotgun and five pass-catchers spread out around the line of scrimmage. One of those pass-catchers was a running back. Sometimes there were two.
What WVU debuted against Baylor was a set with five actual receivers going out to catch passes. Necessity had given birth to another innovation.
"We just didn't have any running backs," Holgorsen said. "They were all beaten up. I told you guys I'll never use that as an excuse, but if we don't have any running backs, we'll make it work with receivers. If we don't have any receivers, we'll make it work with running backs."
It worked wonderfully against Baylor. The Bears had to back off their blitzes and were made to pay for man coverage. They also had a hard time adjusting to outside receiver Stedman Bailey playing inside on the opposite side of inside receiver Tavon Austin.
"It kind of screwed up their communication on defense," Smith said. "You could tell. They were trying to bracket him and put as many guys in his area as possible, but if you put him in the slot in the five-wide formation, it forces them to put him in a matchup where they don't have an advantage."
Last week WVU went to Austin, Texas, to play the Texas Longhorns and again were without Alston. Garrison was better, though, and the run game was a key part of the game plan so the Mountaineers could make sure the Texas defensive ends and linebackers wouldn't consistently guess pass and blitz Smith.
How much did the Mountaineers trust the run? Buie carried 31 times and Garrison three more. They even built in a flea flicker to use once they established the run. With Buie's 207 yards rushing and the way he dominated the fourth quarter as proof, WVU had running backs that game.
And yet WVU also had the five-receiver sets. They weren't used as frequently, but they were no less effective and Holgorsen even called on it on a fourth-down play that turned into a 40-yard touchdown pass to Austin.
The fifth-ranked Mountaineers (5-0, 2-0 Big 12) head to Texas Tech (4-1, 1-1) for Saturday's 3:30 p.m. Big 12 game (ABC telecast). If they roll with the five-receiver set at Jones AT&T Stadium, then they're convinced they've found something.
The Red Raiders rarely blitz and Holgorsen said it happens on about eight percent of the downs.
They like to cover and make teams execute to beat them and WVU's simple counter could be more of the five-receiver sets. That would widen the defense and force the Red Raiders to be good at covering something that's been hard to stop.