By Cam Huffman
Defensive coordinators in the Big 12 — as well as those at James Madison and Maryland, West Virginia University’s next two football opponents — probably won’t be sleeping much tonight if they saw any of West Virginia’s dominating 69-34 win over Marshall Saturday.
Unless they were sleeping under a rock — and it’s hard to coach a football team covered in soil — they already knew all about Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, but what they didn’t have to worry about — at least they thought — was WVU’s ground game.
Sure, Dustin Garrison had a great game against Bowling Green last year, but if Mountaineer opponents could slow down the passing game, they had to feel pretty good about their chances.
That’s not the case any longer.
WVU senior running back Shawne Alston sent a message against Marshall that the Mountaineers can — and will — run the football when needed.
Alston carried the ball 16 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns, and the Mountaineers racked up 331 net yards on the ground — seven more than the damage they did through the skies.
“If you look at what we do, we want to take what the defense gives us,” said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. “If we can run the ball when they’re a weak box and throw the ball when they’re a heavy box, that’s what we want. We don’t want to sit there and bang our heads against the wall.”
While some coaches focus on 50-50 numbers — running and throwing an equal number of times — that’s not a concern for WVU’s offensive staff. Dawson and head coach Dana Holgorsen said their focus is on running it — or passing it — at the right times, depending on what the defense is doing.
“It they want to take away the run, we’ll throw it 90 percent of the time,” said Dawson. “If they want to take away the pass, we’ll run it 90 percent of the time. We just want to get the ball in the hands of a bunch of different guys.”
Holgorsen’s outlook was much the same.
“If we’re running the ball and we’re not getting any yards, then we’ll start throwing the ball more, and that’s what the offense is able to do,” he said. “It doesn’t just start with the running backs, but the guys up front. And we’ve played a lot better up front than we have since I’ve been here.”
But no matter what the defense is doing, based on his performance Saturday, Alston is going to get the ball in his hands a lot the rest of the year.
“He’s hard to tackle,” said Holgorsen. “When you have a guy like that with some offensive linemen that can establish the line of scrimmage, I’m pleased.
“He thinks he’s the baddest dude on the field, and he thinks he’s the boss in the locker room,” he continued. “And he probably is.”
Alston didn’t back down from that label, either.
“I’m definitely the baddest dude on the field,” he said without blinking an eye. “That’s just an attitude you have to have. I feel like they can’t stop me, and that’s just confidence in what I can do on the field.”
But Alston is more than willing to let his teammates have all the glory. Don’t think for a second that the Mountaineers pounding away on the ground will do anything to hurt Smith’s campaign for All-American and Heisman Trophy recognition. When Alston was breaking a long run, the WVU quarterback was the happiest man in the stadium.
“I say it all the time; the running game is a quarterback’s best friend,” said Smith. “When you have those guys running it so well, the coverage backs off and it makes it pretty easy. As long as we stay balanced, we’re going to give a lot of people problems.”
And defensive coordinators a lot of gray hair.