MORGANTOWN — So just what happened to the running game that was supposed to be the one thing above all else that West Virginia’s offense could depend upon this season?
No, the Mountaineers never pretended they were going to be some version of 1970s-era Nebraska or even a 2000s version of WVU. That’s not what Dana Holgorsen’s offense is about.
But with a deep and talented stable of five tailbacks and three more quality fullbacks, the run game was supposed to be, at the very least, what kept defenses honest. Rushel Shell and Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood (and perhaps even Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison) would always provide a fresh set of legs.
Holgorsen’s best offenses have always been the ones that were balanced like that, and this was a running game that would produce that balance.
And then in the opener against No. 2 Alabama Saturday it produced 28 yards.
“I guess that’s not very good,’’ Holgorsen said when he realized what the numbers actually were.
No, it’s not.
Here’s the thing, though. In truth, West Virginia didn’t really much try to run the football. It was as if Holgorsen and offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson — and perhaps even quarterback Clint Trickett in run-pass options — forgot the running game existed.
That was actually OK in the sense that West Virginia was doing a pretty good job of slicing through Alabama’s pass defense. Trickett threw for 365 yards, 143 to Kevin White. He also completed nine passes to those running backs, and in many ways those are like extended handoffs. What does it matter where the backs get the ball as long as they get it?
But that’s not what West Virginia’s running game can be, and everyone knows it. In retrospect, if there was any strategic flaw in how the Mountaineer played during that 33-23 loss to Alabama, it was abandoning the run game.
And Holgorsen knows it.
“I don’t know if I abandoned it probably a little bit too much or [Alabama] probably made some adjustments,’’ Holgorsen said. “I thought Shell ran hard and got loose a little bit early and didn’t have as much success with that in the second half. And we kind of got behind a little bit, as well, so we tried to throw the ball around a little bit probably too much.’’
The truth seems that West Virginia just abandoned the run. Consider some of the numbers:
n Shell, the Pitt transfer who started the game at tailback, carried on three of the game’s first four plays and gained 7, 7 and 6 yards. That was after a first-play pass to Smallwood, who was in the slot.
But then on the next nine plays, Trickett threw six passes, all to or toward wide receivers. Shell had just one more carry and Smallwood two on the drive and gained a combined 6 yards. The drive stalled at the goal line and resulted in a field goal.
n The second series lasted six plays before a punt and Trickett threw four passes and couldn’t throw a fifth because he was sacked. The third series lasted nine plays and included seven passes. It resulted in a touchdown, and already it seemed the emphasis was clearly going to be to throw the ball as much as possible.
Shoot, at one point during that third drive WVU faced a third-and-2 and lined up in its jumbo short-yardage formation. But the ball wasn’t run. Yes, the pass to a wide-open Elijah Wellman worked just fine and gained 10 yards, but it also seemed to signal that the Mountaineers’ run game wasn’t going to be used as a weapon so much as a decoy.
Perhaps that changes when the opponent isn’t an Alabama team that annually ranks in the top 10 in both rushing and total defense. But certainly it has to change.
“We can do better in the run game,’’ Dawson said. “We probably should have stuck with it a little more.’’
Don’t look at that 28-yard total and just assume that West Virginia’s run game isn’t what it was cracked up to be. Shell had 37 yards and was averaging 6.2 per carry at halftime, then was forgotten (four carries, 1 yard in the second half). The net rushing includes the 19 lost yards on a bad snap from center and the 25 yards Trickett took in sacks.
Oh, and Alabama is pretty good at stopping the run.
“I’ll reevaluate that as I do every game from what the play-calling aspect was,’’ Holgorsen said. “They’re tough to run the ball against. We knew that, so we weren’t going to just sit there and run it into the teeth of their defense if it wasn’t very successful. But we’ll reevaluate it and see.’’
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.