By Cam Huffman
A conversation about West Virginia football usually centers around one of two topics — an almost unstoppable passing game, led by Heisman Trophy candidate Geno Smith at quarterback and wide receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, or an almost non-existent defense that is allowing 37.3 points and 496 yards per game.
The running game? That only comes up if discussing days gone by and guys like Steve Slaton, Noel Devine, Avon Cobourne, Quincy Wilson or Amos Zereoue.
But running the football, as it’s been since the early days of Mountaineer football, may still be the main key to victory.
In a season-and-a-half with Dana Holgorsen at the helm, WVU has won 14 games and lost four. When it has rushed for 150 or more yards it’s 6-0. When it’s been held under 150 on the ground, WVU is 8-4.
In their four losses over the last two seasons, WVU has averaged just over 98 yards rushing. Last week against Texas Tech — a 49-14 loss, the Mountaineers’ first of the season — WVU was held to 130 on the ground, and it paid the price.
On paper, the Mountaineers have plenty of capable athletes to run the football. Andrew Buie, a 5-foot-9 sophomore, went for 207 yards and two touchdowns just two weeks ago in a win at Texas. Dustin Garrison topped the 200-yard mark last year, racking up 291 yards on the ground against Bowling Green as a freshman. And senior Shawne Alston, the starter when the season began, rushed for 123 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the season-opener against Marshall — that performance following a 77-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Orange Bowl against Clemson to end 2011.
But Holgorsen hasn’t had the advantage of playing with the three of them all year. Garrison, who had offseason knee surgery after suffering an injury during Orange Bowl preparation, still isn’t back to 100 percent.
The WVU coaches, in fact, had considered trying to give the Pearland, Texas native a medical redshirt after he missed the first two games of 2012. When it became clear that depth was going to be a concern, though, he came into the game against Maryland, ending that possibility.
Garrison has been slowly eased back into action. He’s played in each of the last four games but has just 17 total carries for 84 yards over that stretch. He was most active near the end of the loss to the Red Raiders last week, carrying the ball nine times for 42 yards and a touchdown.
“It looks like he’s handled it fine,” said Holgorsen of the progression back into the lineup. “He is not where he was last year, but he continues to get better.”
Alston was healthy when the season began, but he suffered a thigh bruise in the second game against James Madison, after carrying the ball 14 times for 62 yards and a touchdown. The Hampton, Va., product hasn’t seen the field since.
“He is day-to-day,” said Holgorsen of the senior’s status. “It is frustrating, but what can you do? Do you want me to cry about it?”
Buie, the smallest of the three backs, has been the only one to stay healthy all year. He’s rushed for 504 yards and five touchdowns on 104 carries, but he managed just 71 yards last week against Texas Tech, and his 5-foot-9 frame isn’t suited for blocking quite as well as some of the other backs.
The three main WVU backs have very different skill sets, and the Mountaineers would be the most dangerous if they could get all three backs on the field at the same time. But with Alston and Garrison still far from 100 percent, that might not happen anytime soon.
“We will put the other running backs in and try and get them better,” said Holgorsen. “Dustin played more last week than he had, and he looked a little bit better. We will keep playing them.
“I can’t do anything about it. I can’t put them on waivers and bring somebody else in here. We coach what we have, and that is how we have always approached it. We are not going to use it as an excuse. We are going to line them up and coach them and try and get their mindset right.”
No. 4 Kansas State, which will visit Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown Saturday at 7 p.m. for a showdown with No. 17 WVU that will air live on FOX, is third in the Big 12 in rushing defense, allowing 103.7 yards per game.