Alston and Buie help WVU bolt to fast start
MORGANTOWN - With 6:25 left in what's the last Marshall-West Virginia meeting for the immediate future, a message flashed onto the Milan Puskar Stadium scoreboard.
"The national weather service," it said, "has advised of a threat of severe weather to the stadium."
Last season, of course, this game didn't go four quarters because of lightning strikes. Unfortunately for Marshall, this one did.
Marshall was absolutely thunderstruck by the Mountaineers. By a whopping 69-34 count. West Virginia proved, at least on Saturday, before 59,120, it is worthy of its No. 11 ranking and the preseason hype. In its last two games, WVU's average victory is 69.5-33.5.
Geno Smith got off to a hot start in what should be a season-long Heisman Trophy campaign. He was an amazing 32-of-36 passing for 323 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. Tavon Austin was Tavon Austin.
And, as a bonus for Mountaineer fans, there were a couple of pleasant surprises.
First, there was the physical play from the home team. All knew the offense would be electric, but there were hard WVU hits from game's beginning to end. Early, Josh Francis blew up a screen play. Late, there was tailback Andrew Buie - 5-foot-9, 188-pound Andrew Buie - putting 224-pound linebacker MU Cortez Carter on his back.
"We wanted to be more physical," coach Dana Holgorsen said afterward.
The team's most pleasant surprise offensively, however, came in a 5-11, 236-pound package. Tailback Shawne Alston absolutely threw Marshall for a loop with his punishing style for 123 yards on 16 carries (a 7.7 yard average) with two touchdowns.
We'd been hearing raves about Alston, but last season he had just 416 net yards in 11 games. That's not exactly how one sets up a Heisman run.
Something, however, has happened. Alston is now a serious threat.
"In the [Orange] bowl game, when Dustin [Garrison] went down, I put Shawne in and he took advantage of his opportunity," Holgorsen said. "We all know he was hurt last year and we didn't have him in the spring and he got better as the year went on. Then, in the off-season, he got himself in shape. He's healthy and feels good and is a leader.
"He thinks he's the boss of the locker room. Which he probably is."
"I definitely think I'm the baddest guy on the field," Alston said. "That's not a cocky thing, but a confidence thing."
He certainly was one bad man on Saturday. And that's one good thing for WVU. We know of the Mountaineer "Air Raid" attack. But now there's a ground attack. Mountaineer opponents will have something extra - as it they needed it - to concentrate on in defensive preparations.
"I think it's very important, especially for our passing game and Geno," Alston said. "If people want to back up for passing, me, Buie and Ryan Clarke are ready to go."
Alston said the surprise was external, but not internal.
"I think we opened some eyes to the people of the world," said the senior. "But those in our locker room, our coaches, knew what we were capable of."
"It's nice to have a guy like Shawne Alston, who's hard to tackle," Holgorsen said.
Yes, but it must be doubly nice to have a guy like Buie to back him up. With the No. 1 back from last year, Garrison, apparently headed for a redshirt because of injury, an effective reserve is crucial. (See Orange Bowl, Alston.)
And on Saturday, Buie likewise was impressive. He had 31 receiving yards. He had 80 rushing yards with a score. He averaged 13.3 yards per rush.
"He is a guy that plays reckless," Holgorsen said. "He plays so hard that sometimes I think he just closes his eyes and runs into people.
"He's becoming a better space guy. He's always been a try-hard effort guy. I probably should've given him the ball a little bit more."
Perhaps. Buie had his 80 yards on just six carries. But it's hard to complain when your team puts up 69 on an opponent. (Holgorsen, though, did just that in his postgame press conference, saying, "There's a whole bunch of things we have to work on." God bless coaches, eh?)
Buie was asked if he made a statement on Saturday.
"I guess a little," he said with a smile. "It felt good to get out there after a long summer. I felt we were a good one-two punch. We've just been practicing hard. We do have a chip on our shoulder because people downgrade our running game."
That's because last year, in the shortened game against Marshall, WVU had 42 rushing yards on 26 carries. Against Norfolk State, the Mountaineers had 102 on 33 carries. There was a 360-yard outburst against Bowling Green (on 46 carries), but also a 72-yard performance on 29 carries against Connecticut and a 70-yard performance against Syracuse. Against Cincinnati? Thirty-two yards on 32 carries.
WVU averaged 122.7 rushing yards per game last season. On Saturday, it had 331.
OK, so Marshall isn't Texas or Oklahoma. But now those Big 12 members have something else to study.
Which just could help WVU provide some more offensive strikes.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.