Will Alston be available?
MORGANTOWN - Whether Shawne Alston will play in West Virginia's Big 12 opener with Baylor Saturday is a question not likely to be answered until game time.
Coach Dana Holgorsen doesn't talk about injuries unless a player is definitely out, and he's not going to start with Alston's thigh bruise. Holgorsen will only say that his senior running back is "day-to-day.''
The more pertinent question, though, is how much of a factor the 5-foot-11, 236-pound Alston is in West Virginia's offense, and whether his presence is really that significant.
Holgorsen and his staff try to downplay it, but the numbers say otherwise.
"It affected us a little bit,'' Holgorsen said. "But it's also what they were giving us.''
The "they'' is Maryland, which held West Virginia to just 25 yards on 25 carries in the Mountaineers' 31-21 win last weekend. That's in stark contrast to the first two games of the season, when WVU ran for a combined 453 yards against Marshall and James Madison.
Alston played a huge role with 30 carries and 185 yards in those two games as the primary back. Andrew Buie was the main ball carrier against Maryland and gained but 33 yards on 14 carries.
It would certainly help West Virginia if the running game was more productive this week. At noon on Saturday the No. 9 Mountaineers (3-0) host No. 25 Baylor (3-0) in a game that will be televised by FX.
But before pinning the troubles in the running game on the absence of Alston and his bruising running style, it is wise to consider two other factors - depth and the style of the game.
As for the depth, with Alston out the only truly healthy and proven running back was Buie. Dustin Garrison made his first appearance of the season, but it was also his first appearance since undergoing major knee surgery in the offseason, so he can't be depended upon just yet.
"We had one back. And if we gave it to him 35 times then we probably wouldn't have him this week,'' Holgorsen said. "You've got to be careful of wearing people out.''
Perhaps more significant was the style of the game. Maryland went into it wanting to control the football and keep West Virginia's offense off the field, and for the most part the Terps did just that, dominating both time of possession and offensive plays in the first half and parts of the second.
For instance, West Virginia ran 74 plays in each of the first two games of the season. Against Maryland, the Mountaineers ran just 68. With an offense that tends to drop back and either throw or scramble on perhaps 45 or 50 plays a game, that doesn't leave much room for establishing the run.
"Maryland did a good job of taking the run away. The 20 times that we handed the ball off [as opposed to 43 passes and five scrambles], we didn't get that many yards,'' Holgorsen said. "But we didn't have the ball very much either. When you're looking at only 65 snaps to deal with, you don't want to waste half of them for the sake of handing them off to try and establish the run.
"We did a pretty good job in the pass game, so that's what scored the points. If we were sitting here without 31 points we wouldn't be very happy right now.''
It would seem, though, that against Baylor there will likely be more of an emphasis on running the football. For starters, there are sure to be more plays given that Baylor runs its offense just as fast as West Virginia.
"No one on either side is going to be sitting there trying to milk the clock,'' said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson.
And Baylor has yet to prove it can stop the run, either. In three games the Bears have given up 145, 126 and 262 yards rushing.
But if West Virginia is to have success running the ball, it is more likely with Alston in the mix. He played only a few plays against Maryland and didn't carry the ball.
"He didn't practice much last week and he could have played a little bit more on Saturday, but he didn't practice Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, so we thought that it was in our best interest not to play him,'' Holgorsen said. "It is a long season and if you're not healthy enough to practice during the week then you're probably not going to play on Saturday. He was an emergency guy and got in a few times.
"He'll need to practice [this week] at a high level to count on him playing Saturday. Do I expect that to happen? Yes, I do.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.