It may have been tough sledding in the early going, but West Virginia’s talented stable of running backs eventually broke through and carried the Mountaineer offense with a balanced attack spearheaded by Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood - but not before Georgia Southern’s run defense held the Mountaineers to 73 rushing yards on 19 carries in a plodding first half Saturday night.
“I was a little frustrated with it in the first half, but Georgia Southern had a pretty good run defense a year ago," WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said. "They see it a lot, and they focus on it. Their deal was to press our outside guys and put one more person than we could block in the box."
Holgorsen showed persistence in his play calling, however, sticking with the run in the second half. His patience paid off as the Mountaineers finished with a net of 185 rushing yards on the day and found the end zone three times on the ground. Three different players scored those touchdowns in Shell, Smallwood and backup quarterback William Crest - the latter in the game’s final stages.
Spreading the wealth would be a theme for the WVU backfield in this game. Smallwood saw the majority of carries, by a slight margin, toting the rock 11 times for 96 yards and a score, while Shell carried it eight times for 42 yards and a touchdown.
“I don’t care who gets the carries. I just want those guys to be efficient," running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider said. "In a perfect world you’d like them both to have the same amount of carries and the same amount of yards, but that don’t work. I don’t get caught up in that, and they don’t."
Although Seider said he doesn’t pay too much attention to how many carries each back gets, there is an interesting backstory to how Smallwood ended up with slightly more than Shell. After scoring the Mountaineers first rushing touchdown of the day early in the second half, Shell voluntarily gave up his next series in an effort to allow Smallwood to find the end zone himself.
“That’s the reason why we’re going to win, because guys put their egos aside and cheer for each other harder than they do for themselves. As a coach I saw that, and that made me proud of those guys for them to handle that the way they did,” Seider said.
Over the course of the offseason and through fall camp, Shell and Smallwood have both taken the opportunity to tell the media how close they are as teammates. They truly want to see each other succeed, and Shell showed that with his gesture Saturday night. And as the game wore on, and West Virginia pulled further and further ahead, Seider was able to feature redshirt freshman Donte Thomas Williams, giving the Durham, N.C., native the first game action of his college career.
Thomas-Williams carried the ball nine times for 17 yards, an average of just 2.7 yards per carry, and wasn’t able to take advantage of the one goal line carry he got. His number was called on first-and-goal from the Georgia Southern two-yard-line, but he fumbled the ball and had to fall on it before he crossed the line of scrimmage. Crest took the ball into the end zone on the next play, which turned out to be the last offensive play WVU would run in the game, other than a kneel down on the last play of regulation.
“I just want to get the first couple guys going, and if they need a blow then those other guys have to be ready to go. There isn’t any set number for when they come in the game,” Seider said. "Really (Thomas-Williams) was the fourth tailback in this game. In a perfect world, Eli (Wellman) beat him out, so he should have been getting the carries. I don’t get caught up in that. It’s just whoever can help us and what the situation calls for.”