Alston's debut breathes life into WVU ground game
MORGANTOWN - On Saturday night, West Virginia plays what is arguably one of its highest-profile football games ever, ranking right up there with its BCS bowl games.
With a national primetime audience on ABC and the presence of ESPN's College GameDay crew on campus for the first time, only a handful of other Mountaineer games rival Saturday's 8 p.m. contest with No. 2 LSU as far as exposure is concerned.
It's convenient, then, that No. 16 West Virginia seems to have found one of the missing pieces to its offense just in time for the game.
In Saturday's 37-31 win at Maryland, the Mountaineers finally ran the football.
It wasn't great, mind you. But it was a start.
"We did better,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said after Saturday's win at Byrd Stadium. "We're still only at about three yards a carry, but we were able to hand it off and get some yards.''
Some of that improvement is thanks in part to an unexpected contributor. After not practicing much at all in either the spring or fall camp and into the start of the season, junior tailback Shawne Alston made his 2011 debut at Maryland.
Like WVU's running game as a whole, Alston's numbers weren't great, but it was a start. Alston carried six times for 20 yards, all six times in short-yardage situations. Three times he gained the necessary yardage and three times he didn't.
"We wanted to see what he could do,'' Holgorsen said. "Shawne did all right, but there were a couple of times when he didn't get the first down and I thought he tip-toed and didn't hit the hole very well. But a couple of times he did fine.''
Alston was a missing link in the run game because of a neck injury he suffered nine months ago in a traffic accident when he was rear-ended. At first he shook it off, but the pain returned and never went away.
It cost Alston virtually all of the spring and fall camps. He didn't practice in even a limited role until the second week of the season and hadn't dressed for a game until Saturday.
"I felt that way sometimes, yeah,'' Alston said when asked if he thought he'd never get back on the field. "But you just have to have faith in the training staff and what they're telling you. So I just kept going to treatments and working hard.
"But every time I made contact or even put on my helmet it was giving me pain. That's gone now, but now I'm sore because I haven't been out there [practicing or playing]. But it'll be good.''
In Alston's absence, West Virginia used three true freshmen tailbacks in the first two weeks of the season. It was ugly at times. Against Marshall the Mountaineers rushed for just 42 yards. That figure was up to 102 against Norfolk State, but WVU also embarrassingly failed to move the ball one yard on six straight tries from point-blank range in that game.
"It was frustrating [to watch], especially if you're the type of person who felt you could change that,'' said Alston, who obviously felt he could. "We did a good job or trying to run the ball, but we've got a lot of young guys back there. We can't use that as an excuse, but we're going to get better as games go on. We're going to be able to run better.''
On Saturday, Alston's first two carries were on third-and-2 and second-and-2. He gained 7 yards the first time and six the second. He would also convert a second-and-1 with a 5-yard run in the fourth quarter.
But he was also given the ball on a fourth-and-3 try late in the first half and gained just two yards. On a third-and-3 in the third quarter he gained 1. And on a first-and-goal at the 3 in the fourth quarter he lost a yard.
"I don't know if it changed [the running game], but I attempted to change it,'' Alston said.
And, indeed, that's really all Holgorsen is looking for. He doesn't need a big running threat, but he does need some running threat.
"Again, it's all about making [defenses] defend both the pass and the run,'' Holgorsen said. "We can't be one-dimensional.''
BRIEFLY: West Virginia's publicity department issued a statement from Holgorsen Sunday on how nice it was for the fans to have the ESPN GameDay crew in town for the LSU game. But he's trying not to make any of this a big deal.
"I told them in [the locker room], 'Next week's a big game because it's the next game,'" Holgorsen said Saturday. "It's not about anything other than that.''
"I'm not smart enough to work a week ahead,'' he said. "Thursday night I reluctantly watched a little bit of [LSU's 19-6 win over Mississippi State], more as a spectator than as a coach.''
"I hope our offense isn't going to be judged on what happens [against LSU],'' he said. "They're really, really good on defense.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com.