Holgorsen still looking for go-to back
MORGANTOWN - It's not that Dana Holgorsen doesn't want to run the ball. That's just not true.
Yes, it may appear that way after his West Virginia football team rolled up a staggering 533 yards of total offense against No. 1 LSU Saturday night. The Mountaineers did so by throwing the football 65 times. That was one pass for roughly each of the 70 rushing yards WVU gained.
Imagine, though, the possibilities if West Virginia did have a ground game.
Holgorsen has. And slowly he may be finding it.
"It depends on if you have three freshmen or if you have an All-American back out there,'' the West Virginia head coach said in reference to his tailbacks. "We're searching for guys that are every-down backs, which we don't have yet.''
No, but it's coming.
Heading into Saturday's 3:30 p.m. home game with Bowling Green, the Mountaineers' running game remains a four-headed monster. Freshman tailbacks Dustin Garrison, Vernard Roberts and Andrew Buie each have had their moments, as has junior Shawne Alston more recently.
None are to the point where Holgorsen trusts them as he did Kendall Hunter a year ago at Oklahoma State. Hunter ran for more than 1,500 yards, and that made OSU's passing attack even more lethal.
"When you had a guy like Kendall Hunter, who's about to start for the 49ers, that means you have to give it to that guy a little more,'' Holgorsen said. "We'll get to the point that we trust those guys more and give them the ball more.''
The trouble is, the guy that earns the trust seems to be a different one each week. Buie was the main attraction early in the season, but he never had any real breakaway runs and didn't play last week against LSU because of an injury.
Roberts took over the starting job after that and had some solid games. He leads the team in carries with 41, but is averaging just 30 yards per game, roughly the same as Buie.
Alston was the flavor of the week at Maryland when he made his debut after recovering from a neck injury, but he seems destined as a short-yardage back.
And so now the favorite is apparently Garrison, who had carried the ball just three times in the first three games. Against LSU, with Buie out and Roberts not producing, Garrison had 10 carries for 46 yards and caught four passes for 26 more yards. He set up a touchdown with a 19-yard screen pass and then scored it from the 1 a play later.
"Dustin came in last week and gave us a half of really good football,'' Holgorsen said. "His production in one half of football was as good a performance as we've had in one half this year.''
So does that mean Garrison gets the first crack this week against Bowling Green? Well, Holgorsen said that will depend on practice this week.
Apparently, most of the other aspects of the run game have been improving week by week, but as far as the tailback to ultimately get the job done, that's going to remain an open question.
"The offensive line did a heck of a job at blocking. Pass protection was great last week. Run blocking was relatively good,'' Holgorsen said. "But we're still missing a guy that can burst through a hole and get through it.''
Indeed, the longest run from scrimmage by a Mountaineer this season was Garrison's 17-yarder against LSU, but that came against the Tigers' prevent defense in the waning seconds of the first half and accomplished nothing.
The second-longest run this year was a 15-yard scramble by quarterback Geno Smith. Buie's longest run is 11 yards, Roberts' 9 yards and Alston's 7.
Again, though, the other pieces are coming together, such as the blocking.
"The yards we got we were supposed to get,'' offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh said, meaning the backs are beginning to hit the holes. "It's hard to bust a big run on [LSU], but we were efficient in the run game to the point where I think we had one or two negative [-yardage] runs. The week before [LSU's defense forced] 18 against Mississippi State, which was averaging 320 yards rushing a game.
"We were efficient, we got some first downs when we needed to and ran the ball just enough to keep them off balance.''
Garrison knows that last week probably doesn't matter as far as who plays this week. But he says all the freshman backs are improving after a rugged introduction to college football.
"The first game was hard for me and Buie and Vernard because we'd never played a college game before,'' Garrison said, referring to a 42-yard team rushing performance against Marshall. "But after that game it slowed down a lot and in the LSU game it really slowed down for me a lot.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.