Good time for WVU to get ground game going
MORGANTOWN - If ever West Virginia needed a running game, this would be the week.
When the Mountaineers (5-4, 2-4 Big 12) try again to snap what has grown to a four-game losing streak, it will come against a No. 13 Oklahoma team (7-2, 5-1) that literally invites opponents to run the football. The Sooners gave up 252 yards on the ground to Baylor last week and because of that struggled mightily, winning just 42-34.
This is an OU defense that goes all out schematically to stop what West Virginia does best, which is throw the football. The Sooners rank second in the nation in pass efficiency defense, eighth in passing yards allowed and have given up only three inconsequential touchdowns through the air all season.
So again, an ability to run the football when the teams meet at 7 p.m. Saturday at Mountaineer Field will be crucial, and everyone knows it.
"It's a huge issue and we're going to work hard on it this week,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "We've done a poor job of establishing the line of scrimmage.''
It hasn't always been that way for the Mountaineers. In the season opener against Marshall, WVU ran for 331 yards and Shawne Alston gained 123. In beating Texas, West Virginia got 207 yards on the ground from Andrew Buie.
But during this four-game skid, the Mountaineers have averaged just 93.5 yards on the ground and have run for just 78 in each of the last two games. They are averaging 2.8 yards per rush in the last five games as opposed to 5.0 the first five, and those first five games included a 25-carry, 25-yard performance against Maryland.
Last week in a loss to Oklahoma State, WVU averaged 2.2 yards per rush, the same as a week before against TCU.
It's a combination of an offensive line being pushed around and a running back corps that is injured and overworked.
"We have no push. We had none. We were garbage on third-and-short, fourth-and-short, when we handed the ball off,'' Holgorsen said. "That's a combination of just not controlling the line of scrimmage up front and not having good enough running backs to be able to get the yards that we need.
"You can blame it on what you want to. Shawne is hurt. It's not what people want to hear, but he's hurt. That's why he's not playing. Dustin [Garrison] is still six months out from being where he was last year [because of knee surgery], which means we put it in the hands of Andrew Buie, who is averaging almost 5 yards a rush. But you give it to him 20 times a game he's going to wear down. He is not that type of guy who can handle that many carries.''
The truth is, Buie spent much of the offseason working on his strength and adding some weight, but he's still a small back.
"I feel good. I feel fine,'' he insisted. "That was the point of the offseason, to get my body to where I could handle that.''
But it would be so much better if Buie were part of a rotation of running backs. Alston is the key to that because he's the only one of the three built to run the ball repeatedly. But after shining in that opener, he suffered a serious thigh bruise and has played sparingly since.
Last week against Oklahoma State, Holgorsen even went so far as to put slot receiver Tavon Austin in the backfield a few times. He always takes handoffs or short tip passes while motioning through the backfield, but this time he lined up there.
But that's not a great option.
"I wish we could clone him and put three of him out there. You want to get it into his hands as much as you can,'' Holgorsen said. "With that said, his trade has been being an inside receiver for four years now. We'll continue to try and come up with creative ways to get him the ball because he's dynamic as it comes in college football.''
But it won't be as a load-bearing running back.
Regardless of who lines up in the backfield, though, it's going to be important for someone to carry the ball and carry it well against Oklahoma. The Sooners will give that part of the game to West Virginia and hope that the four or five players they commit to the run (as opposed to having six, seven or eight in the box) can make plays one-on-one.
"They're going to play a 4-1 or 4-2 front and their safeties are their fill guys,'' Holgorsen said. "They're going to rely on those people in the box and those two safeties that come down to stop the run. There's going to be people in space, and then once those guys are in space it's about making some people miss.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.