Mountaineer Gameday: No. 18 WVU needs to establish a rushing attack
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Dana Holgorsen's lofty, oft top-ranked offense is No. 109 out of 120 FBS teams in rushing yards per game and actually worse, by one slot, in yards per attempt.
Holgorsen doesn't concern himself with the present rankings as much as the eventual reality.
"I don't care if we're No. 120," the West Virginia football coach said. "If we're able to run the ball when we need to be able to and not let them dictate what we do, either run it or throw it, than we've accomplished our goal."
The 18th-ranked Mountaineers, who have 144 yards in two games and average 2.4 per attempt, don't need a big number in Saturday's noon ESPNU game at Maryland (1-0). They just need numbers when they need numbers.
WVU (2-0) is not going to be a top-tier rushing offense in the country and might not be in the top half of the Big East because WVU is able to and ought to do great things with the pass. Geno Smith might not have a Justin Blackmon or a Michael Crabtree at his disposal yet and it might never be that way this season, but he has a Tavon Austin and an Ivan McCartney, he has a Devon Brown and a Stedman Bailey. He may eventually have a Ryan Nehlen and a Brad Starks.
And that doesn't even count a Tyler Urban, who caught around 1,200 passes in spring practice and has thus far caught only three, though one was for a touchdown.
But WVU is also not going to be an offense that can continue to win with 42 yards rushing or with Smith passing for 371 yards and four touchdowns. OK, the latter may be true, but to make that happen, the Mountaineers must at least scare people closer to the line of scrimmage. They must be able to score on one of the six plays run from the 1-yard line. They must be able to convert a fourth-and-short, be it at midfield or in the red zone.
Either that, or they must accept the consequences.
"This is all about be efficient and not letting the defense dictate being one-sided," Holgorsen said. "With rushing yards, you've got to get a back that can make some people miss. You've got to get guys up front blocking people and sustaining blocks. Same thing on the perimeter. Guys have to sustain blocks.
"How many yards we're rushing for is not nearly as important as making them respect the fact we're able to run the ball. If they're going to come into game knowing we're not going to run the ball, they're going to drop eight (defenders) all the time and that's a challenge to our offense."
Figure the Terrapins, who are coached by noted defensive strategist Randy Edsall, will seek to stop WVU's pass until WVU proves it can run. Consistently. If the Mountaineers fail again, imagine what No. 3 LSU and its rotation of SEC linemen can devise to disarm Smith and the passing game.
If you don't think that's a concern, consider this: Norfolk State, a FCS team, played a very transparent defense because it knew - as opposed to prayed or hoped - the Mountaineers could not run the ball.
WVU's success Saturday and in the future is not measured best by how many yards a players averages per carry or how many the team gains in the game, but by how the opponent treats the offense.
"It's based on how they line up," Holgorsen said. "Marshall did a good job scheming to rake away our run. The thing that discouraged me so much last game was what they were doing defensively was unquestionable geared toward taking away the pass. We didn't do a good job taking advantage of that with the run."
In recent years, 42 yards in one game and 102 in the next could be a cause for mutiny, but Holgorsen's offense has through the years proven capable of winning with passing yards far outnumbering rushing yards. The running threat was there, though.
At the present, the Mountaineers do not have that. There have been two failed fourth down conversions and the one goal-line fiasco last week Holgorsen called "flat-out embarrassing." Yet it's close and attainable with a few fixes he thinks and hopes come with practice and repetition.
The linemen and the blocking backs and the receivers are usually targeted properly and frequently hit their defender as planned. The finish is lacking and far too often the Mountaineers let an opponent off the block. Other times the backs with the ball just don't hit the hole hard, if at all, and are guilty of finessing the play when it requires force.
It shows up in the game and the players can't hide from it when the film is reviewed for everyone to see.
The plays work if the players work them properly. They have to sustain and complete blocks and just knock over opponents. Backs have to open their eyes and see hole before the opponent closes it.
"We didn't all of a sudden decide we want to be bad at the running game or develop plays that get the running back's teeth knocked out," he said.
There are no other solutions. Big backs are blockers for Holgorsen, though Shawne Alston, who on Twitter this week announced he was cleared to play, could get a look when he returns. Holgorsen doesn't know when that is and, in truth, has only seen the 220-pound junior practice a handful of times. The suggestion he or Ryan Clarke could punch the ball in from the one or move the chains on fourth down implies the plays are not built for players like the smaller Vernard Roberts, Dustin Garrison or Andrew Buie.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with the scheme," Holgorsen said. "We've been able to score touchdowns with those sized backs for the better part of the last 15 years. I don't know if all of a sudden the scheme is screwed up based on the weight of the guys carrying the ball.
"I don't think that has anything to do with it. If the answer was to give the ball to a bigger back, everyone would have a bigger back. Kendal Hunter (at Oklahoma State) was 185 pounds and he scored 20 touchdowns last year."