WVU football: Oklahoma State's Randle draws impressive comparisons
MORGANTOWN - The last time West Virginia and Oklahoma State played one another, the Cowboys won the 1987 Sun Bowl 35-33 thanks to a MVP performance by Thurman Thomas.
On his last college game before beginning a Hall of Fame career with the Buffalo Bills, Thomas had 157 yards rushing and a game-record four touchdowns.
The two teams renew their series at 3:30 p.m. (WCHS) game Saturday at Boone Pickens Stadium. Oklahoma State will bring a running back that's evoking comparisons to Thomas.
"I think it's fair," said Cowboys Coach Mike Gundy, who played quarterback at the school when Thomas starred in the backfield. "I don't know if it's ever fair to compare a guy to a NFL Hall of Famer. That could be a little unjust. But at this point in his career, Thurman was effective in the same areas Joseph Randle is."
Randle leads the Big 12 in rushing with 116.75 yards per game. A junior from Wichita, Kan., Randle averages 5.34 yards per carry and has had at least 100 yards in six of eight games. WVU (5-3, 3-2 Big 12) has struggled on defense and ranks No. 111 overall, No. 116 in scoring defense and last among 120 teams in pass defense, but has actually done a good job against the run.
The Mountaineers rank No. 32 and allow 132.5 yards per game and just 3.3 yards per carry. They've yet to allow an individual opponent to rush for 100 yards, which is one of their stated goals, but which hasn't been tested like it will be by Randle.
"It'll be a challenge," Coach Dana Holgorsen said.
"They've got a pretty good plan. They've got good guys up front and a running back who can hit it pretty good."
He would know. Holgorsen was the Oklahoma State offensive coordinator in 2010. He remembers the first time he watched Randall in practice. "This is going to be fun," Holgorsen thought.
The Cowboys would finish ranked No. 3 in total offense, No. 2 in passing offense and No. 3 in scoring offense with quarterback Brandon Weeden throwing to receiver Justin Blackmon. They were also No. 35 in rushing offense thanks to Kendall Hunter, who happened to be a consensus All-American.
Randle was a factor, too, though. He added 435 yards rushing and was the team's fourth-leading receiver with 37 receptions for 427 yards. The potential was unmistakable.
"Joseph Randle is a fantastic football player," Holgorsen sad. "He's one of my favorite kids I've ever coached even though I only had him one year as a true freshman. It means a lot to him. He lives it.
"He's quick-twitch, powerful and very skilled. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. You can throw him screens. You can line him up at receiver and throw him the ball down the field. He's just a good player."
Thomas remains the school's all-time leading rusher (4,585 yards), still well ahead of Randle's 2,602 yards. Barry Sanders owns the school of 48 rushing touchdowns and Thomas is No. 3 with 43 rushing touchdowns. Randle already has 35.
"Both are very intelligent, cerebral football players," Gundy said. "Both are good runners. They're not going to be great, breakaway speed players, but they're both very effective at getting good runs. And they're both good in other areas. They're good pass protectors. They've got good hands. They receive the ball. Both players are good in all those areas."
Randle has caught 21 passes and blocked in a shotgun offense that has allowed only four sacks in eight games, despite playing with three different quarterbacks. He flocked to the versatility the Cowboys (5-3, 3-2) promised before his freshman year, when Gundy hired Holgorsen to install the offense. Randall has thrived ever since.
"It makes me more valuable to the offense," he said. "It's a quarterback-friendly league now. Football has changed to a quarterback's game. I want to try to be helpful to the quarterback by being able to block, by being a good check-down so they know you can make something positive happen if everyone is being covered down the field and also by just being able to run the ball."
There is a stigma attached to all this and the idea is spreading across college football. Where once there were system quarterbacks and receivers who put up huge numbers in offenses that were catered to the college game and didn't transition to the NFL, there are now thought to be system running backs.
Those players are seen as the benefactors of the attention defenses give to the quarterbacks and receivers. Therefore, doubt exists as to whether players who ran and caught the ball and blocked for the quarterback can adapt and excel in the NFL's running games.
Randall shrugs the shoulders atop his 6 foot, 1 inch, 200-pound frame.
"It doesn't bother me," he said. "If that's a bad thing, if being well-rounded is a negative, I'll take that. I think I'm more of a play maker."
Randle, who had 1,216 yards and 24 rushing touchdowns and added two scores and 266 yards receiving on 43 catches last season, needs 66 yards rushing against WVU to become the sixth player in school history with more than one 1,000-yard season. Sanders never did that, though Thomas, Hunter, Tatum Bell David Thompson and 1977 Heisman Trophy runner-up Terry Miller have.
Miller is the only Cowboys player to have three 1,000-yard seasons, which Randall figures to have a shot at next season. He remains focused on completing his work as a player.
"I'm not where I want to be yet," he said. "I'm still living paycheck to paycheck right now. I'm trying to get to where I'm not living like that. That's why I keep working hard."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.