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Puzzle missing a vital piece

MORGANTOWN - Before Saturday's Maryland-WVU game, all the buzz was about the Mountaineers' gray uniforms and helmets. Did Maryland, of all teams, really look sharper than WVU?

The bet from here is Joan and Melissa Rivers would have absolutely killed the unis on the red carpet.

After the Mountaineers' 31-21 win over the Terrapins before a crowd of 58,504, however, there were answers.

First, all in attendance found out exactly how important injured tailback Shawne Alston is to the high-flying WVU offense. And we now know why the Mountaineer coaches already have four running back commitments for next season.

Yes, Maryland has fine players on the defense, including returning second-team All-America tackle Joe Vellano, who had six tackles Saturday. The team entered the game eighth nationally in total defense.

Still, WVU was a different team on Saturday. It was a limited team. It was a team without a bruising runner to pound the ball and set up the pass.

"Shawne has a thigh bruise," said WVU coach Dana Holgorsen. "He was limited this week and I didn't feel it was the right thing to do to play him."

WVU still won, of course. But it didn't exactly look the part of a Top 10 team. Quarterback Geno Smith, the Heisman Trophy leader last week according to a straw poll and numerous pundits, was off a bit. Yet the loss of Alston, a 5-foot-11, 236-pound senior, was glaring.

In the previous games against Marshall and James Madison, WVU was averaging 226 rushing yards. The Mountaineers were No. 25 nationally in rushing offense.

Without Alston, West Virginia finished with but 25 rushing yards. Andrew Buie, a heretofore counterpunch to Alston's punch, had 33 net yards with a long of eight. Dustin Garrison's possible redshirt was torn off for two carries for one yard.

"My hat's off to Maryland," said WVU running backs coach Robert Gillespie. "But we need every piece of the puzzle to make us the strongest. When we don't have that, others have to step up."

But Alston, that missing piece, isn't one along the edge of the puzzle. He's squarely in the middle, along with Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.

"He's significant to our offense," said Mountaineer offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. "I'm not going to tell you he's not.

"I mean, we can't have one guy go down and slow down. But to tell you he's not important to our offense is wrong."

Gillespie, by the way, said Alston "hopefully will bounce back and play next week." He said Garrison is "85-90 percent" back from a knee injury.

When Baylor hits Touchdown City, though, the Mountaineers need Alston. Sure, they need the Mountaineer defense to tighten the screws. Truth be told, though, it did Saturday.

Heading into the game, West Virginia was ranked No. 84 in total defense, allowing an average of 430 yards. Against Maryland, a step up in competition, the Mountaineers allowed 351. They had a 51-yard Doug Rigg fumble return for a score.

WVU actually caused five fumbles, though it recovered just two. It added an interception, although Wes Tonkery would have served his team better by batting the fourth-down heave down.

The Mountaineers, however, won't be a great defensive football team this season. They simply don't have the talent. What it can be is a great offensive team. What it will hang its hat on is offense. Smith. Austin. Bailey. And, yes, Alston.

Against Baylor or Texas or most Big 12 teams, the Mountaineers will have to outscore their opponents. And they cannot have one rushing yard after three quarters, as they did Saturday against the Terrapins.

The offensive line needs to improve. Too, Alston must return - so the team isn't one-dimensional.

"We want to run the ball better," Dawson said. "We didn't today."

The puzzle was certainly missing a piece.

Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, mitchvingle@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.


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