Chillin' from the backfield
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Shawne Alston is far from a one-trick pony. He does, however, seem to save some of his best tricks for the same types of conditions.
For the second year in a row, West Virginia's big senior tailback emerged as a star in a must-win game the Mountaineers had to play in less-than-ideal conditions. This time it was the bitter cold at Iowa State as WVU snapped a five-game losing skid to become bowl eligible.
Alston had 130 yards rushing in the 31-24 victory Friday. Temperatures were in the 30s and a stiff breeze dropped the wind-chill factor to 21 degrees.
"It seems he's always coming back at the right time, especially in these cold-weather games,'' quarterback Geno Smith said of Alston. "A lot of guys don't like to hit in these conditions. He does.''
A year ago, Alston had his first 100-yard rushing day in a win at Rutgers. He ran for 110 yards in a snowstorm in Piscataway, N.J., as West Virginia bounced back from a lopsided loss at Syracuse.
Alston has little explanation for the weather factor.
"Some people like to say that the defense doesn't like to hit you when it's cold,'' Alston said. "I don't know about that. But I'd like to think I can play when it's hot, too.''
That Alston is playing at all is a relief to him and the Mountaineers. After rushing for 123 yards in the opener against Marshall (his only 100-yard game not in the cold), Alston suffered a severe thigh bruise the second week against James Madison and hadn't been the same since.
He didn't play at all for four straight games, returned in a very limited capacity against TCU and Oklahoma State, then didn't get on the field a week ago against Oklahoma.
The missed playing time against the Sooners, though, was the choice of the coaching staff and it came even after Alston had a good week of practice.
"Last week's game wasn't his type of game,'' coach Dana Holgorsen said.
No, last week was a Tavon Austin type of game. That's when he made his debut at tailback and ran for a school-record 344 yards. The Oklahoma defense set itself up for that one, emptying the box and giving the 5-foot-9, 174-pound Austin room to run.
Iowa State's defense was packed much tighter and so it was largely up to the 5-foot-11, 236-pound Alston to gain tough yards. He did, averaging 6.8 yards per carry.
Much of the time, though, Alston was running in open spaces. Part of that was because Iowa State's defense was so preoccupied with Austin. When he lined up in the slot or went in motion and didn't get the ball, he drew defenders out of the box.
Ultimately, though, it was probably a play on which Alston didn't get the ball that proved the most important of the day. After spending the entire game chasing Austin at the expense of allowing Alston to run free, the Cyclones paid attention to Alston.
It was the play on which Austin ran 75 yards with a little jet sweep pass to score the winning touchdown.
"He was sort of a distraction,'' Alston said of Austin, meaning Austin distracted ISU's defenders and opened up more running room. "But at the end of the game when he went for the touchdown, they went with me to the right.''
The game had its eye on West Virginia even as the Mountaineers' losing streak reached five games because of the appeal of its offense. The Holiday Bowl has the No. 5 pick from the Big 12 and the opponent is the No. 3 team from the Pac-12.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.