By Cam Huffman
West Virginia fans have come up with some creative stories in recent weeks in trying to explain the Mountaineers’ five-game losing streak, which ended Friday with a 31-24 win at Iowa State.
WVU (6-5, 3-5 Big 12) had lost five straight for the first time since 1986, and water cooler conversations were full of reasons for the collapse, which took WVU from 5-0 to No. 5 in the country to 5-5 and struggling for a bowl berth.
A look at the statistics, though, reveals an obvious difference between WVU’s six wins and its five losses.
In victories over Marshall, James Madison, Maryland, Baylor, Texas and Iowa State, the Mountaineers averaged 176.5 yards per game on the ground. In four of the six — Marshall (331), Baylor (151), Texas (192) and Iowa State (239) — WVU topped 150 yards rushing.
In four of the five losses, WVU averaged 93.5 yards per game on the ground. The Mountaineers put up an impressive 458 in the loss to Oklahoma but fell one point short against the Sooners — not from a lack of offense.
The OU loss was the only one in head coach Dana Holgorsen’s nearly two full seasons on the WVU sidelines where his team has topped the 150-yard mark on the ground and come away with a loss.
The numbers are clear: When the Mountaineers can run the football, more options open up in the passing game, the offense begins to click, big numbers are thrown up on the scoreboard and WVU usually wins. When it can’t establish the run, opponents are able to drop more defenders into coverage, finding open receivers becomes more difficult for quarterback Geno Smith, the offense stalls, points are tough to find and the Mountaineers usually lose.
The good news from the gold and blue-bleeding fans throughout the Mountain State is that WVU is confident it has finally found a way to run the football consistently.
It started with moving Tavon Austin — one of the most dynamic players in the country — into the backfield against Oklahoma, a strategy that resulted in a school-record 344 rushing yards for the senior from Maryland.
It continued Saturday with the return of Shawne Alston, who powered his way to 130 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries against ISU.
Having Alston and Austin both in the backfield might be confusing to television and radio announcers, but that’s nothing compared to what it does to opposing defenses.
“It helps us a lot,” said Austin, who managed to back up his record-setting performance a week ago with 74 yards on 14 carries against the Cyclones. “He’s a power back, and me and (Andrew) Buie are the scat backs. We’re going to make them miss, and he’s just going to lay them down for us.”
Alston’s power running, in fact, helped lead to the biggest play of Saturday’s game, Austin’s 75-yard touchdown catch and run on WVU’s famed touch pass late in the fourth quarter that gave the Mountaineers a lead they never handed back.
With the ISU defensive ends crashing down to help stop the WVU power game, the edge was wide open for the speedy Austin to make a play.
“He was crashing in, so the only thing we had to worry about was the safety and the corner,” said Austin. “Shawne and Stedman (Bailey) took care of them (with blocks), so all I had to do was run.”
The combination of speed and power was the perfect game plan against an ISU defense that has been one of the Big 12’s most stingy all season.
“They are a very, very good defense, and you have to be able to lean on those guys a little bit,” said WVU running backs coach Robert Gillespie. “We still wanted to get the ball to Tavon and let him make plays in space, but we also knew that we had to get in there and get tough, gritty yards. (Alston’s) our best option in doing that.
“What Tavon did last week was supernatural. You can’t do that every week at running back. We played a really good defense, and for him to have 70-some yards on 14 carries is a really good game. It definitely gave us a good combination of some speed and some power in the game at all times.”
It’s a combination WVU hopes will carry it to a win Saturday against Kansas and then to a successful bowl performance at the end of the year, now that Alston, who missed most of eight games with a deep thigh bruise, looks healthy enough to stay on the field.
After suffering a deep thigh bruise in the first quarter of the season’s second game against James Madison, Alston — who has twice had to have blood surgically removed from the area and was treated by a specialist from Atlanta — had carried the ball just eight times for 16 yards in the last eight games.
He’s still not 100 percent, but after Saturday’s performance, the senior doesn’t plan on standing on the sidelines anymore.
“It’s one of those minor things,” said Alston, downplaying the injury. “Football players are always injured, just because of the wear and tear on your body. It doesn’t really matter. I’ve played through so many injuries.”
“It was good to get him back,” said Gillespie. “He brings an energy to the team, he’s a leader and the guys are excited when he’s back.”
“When he’s back there, he makes us better,” Holgorsen added. “He’s got to be healthy. We don’t want to put a guy with a bum leg back there, but he’s worked hard in rehabing to get himself back to the point where he could help the team. Obviously, he did that.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH