The West Virginia University football team, already dealing with the loss of one of its primary offensive weapons, definitely will be without another for the upcoming Heart of Dallas Bowl.
WVU announced Thursday night that running back Justin Crawford, a 1,000-yard rusher the Mountaineers each of the last two seasons, will skip the bowl to concentrate on the upcoming NFL draft.
“Justin has logged a lot of miles and been a key contributor for us the past two seasons,” WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “He made a decision to not play in the bowl game based on what is best for him and his family.
“He came to West Virginia to further his education and be a featured back in the Big 12 and he accomplished his goals,” Holgorsen added. “As he starts his preparation for the NFL Draft, we wish him nothing but the best.”
That is a significant blow to the WVU running game after the Mountaineers already dealt with a major blow to their passing game. Quarterback Will Grier broke his finger in a loss to Texas and missed the next game against Oklahoma as well. His status for the Heart of Dallas Bowl has not been announced. WVU did announce, however, that Grier will return in 2018.
Crawford arrived in Morgantown last year from Northwest Mississippi Community College and immediately became a top running back in the Big 12. In his debut season, he finished third in the conference with 1,184 yards and four touchdowns. That included a 331-yard performance against Oklahoma that was the third-highest single-season rushing total in Mountaineer history. He was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Year.
He followed that season with another 1,000-yard output as a senior, logging 1,061 yards and seven touchdowns. Crawford opened the season with five straight 100-yard games and recorded seven overall in 2017. He earned a spot on the All-Big 12 second team for that performance and became the first WVU running back with consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons since Noel Devine in 2008-09.
Crawford’s 2,245 yards are the 11th-best career total in WVU history.
The senior accounted for 55 percent of the Mountaineers’ rushing yards this season. WVU gained 1,924 rushing yards as a team, its 160.4 yards per game ranking 72nd in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Crawford was not ranked among the top 12 running backs in CBSSports.com’s 2018 draft ratings, nor was he ranked among the top 16 running backs in next year’s draft by Scouts, Inc.
With Crawford gone, West Virginia will turn toward Kennedy McCoy (565 yards, seven touchdowns) and Martell Pettaway (145 yards, two touchdowns) to pick up the slack. The Mountaineers face Utah — which owns the No. 36 rush defense in the FBS at 139.8 yards allowed per game — in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Tuesday, Dec. 26.
College football players skipping bowl games has grown in popularity in recent seasons. Among the notable players sitting out bowl games this season are Texas safety DeShon Elliott and tackle Connor Williams and Florida State safety Derwin James.