After some prodding early, WVU turned to the run on its most key of possessions to turn a one possession game into a comfortable 31-20 lead. And even though there were more than 11 minutes to play, suddenly the edge felt cushy, with the security blanket of knowing the Mountaineers could run whenever they desired in a contest in which they amassed exactly 300 yards on the ground.
That ability showed itself early in the game, but the nature of not going to the well too often too early prevented initial reliance by head coach Dana Holgorsen. That was furthered by Texas Tech’s key stop as WVU tried to run power out of its own five-yard line and was promptly stuffed. But once – through not much fault of his own – Skyler Howard was intercepted for the second time off a tipped pass, Holgorsen had seen enough.
After Texas Tech got within 24-20 via a field goal, both increasing the pressure on the Mountaineers and the blood pressure of the 54,932 announced in attendance, West Virginia pieced together an eight-play, 59-yard drive in which all but one play was a run. WVU never put the ball in danger, and was never truly in danger of being stopped themselves, ripping off gains of 10 and 28 yards, in addition to the final four runs inside the red zone for the final 13 yards.
It was a showcase of turning to the obvious advantage in a key moment, and it paid dividends when Howard scored from the two-yard line for the 31-20 lead. Besides the collective sigh, West Virginia learned it had at least one surefire aspect of the offense to rely upon, and it doubled down on that after Texas Tech got within 31-26 on a touchdown and the resulting two-point try fail.
As expected, West Virginia dipped into the well again, using the run and a key Texas Tech personal foul penalty to move the ball from their own 35 (thanks to another TTU kickoff out of bounds) inside their own 35 in just four plays. The march continued, WVU pounding the ball exclusively on the ground aside from a pair of confounding pass calls on second and long. But the pure inability of the Raiders to resemble anything more than a sieve bailed the Mountaineers out, and West Virginia ended up running the entire 6:47 left on the clock out, kneeling twice near the goal line as the game expired.
The drive totaled 16 plays, with just four passes, and the final seven plays were on the ground, WVU knowing that it could not be stopped by a TTU front that allowed a pair of 100-yard backs in Wendell Smallwood (163) and Rushel Shell (111) for the first time since…the Raiders faced the Mountaineers last season.
The end-game approach also marked the first time in several seasons that West Virginia was able to control the ball and milk away clock with just a one possession lead. WVU did so last season against Baylor, but that was when it was ahead 41-27. This was the very definition of crunch time, and the team solidified around the very thing Holgorsen didn’t do effectively when he arrived in utilizing the power run.
It was, at the very least, a streak-snapper and season-saver of a move, and it plainly puts West Virginia – warts and all – back in position with a chance at the semblance of a successful season. It wasn’t all positives. Indeed, the offense was better in putting up 449 yards, but portions of that were on the Texas Tech defense. The Raiders were among the worst defensive fronts WVU will play this season, and perhaps the worst at the Power Five level. The Mountaineers’ line routinely got exceptional push against the front four, and Smallwood had openings all day. To his credit, the back exploited the availabilities and made one cut and hit the crease to get to the second level and cause major damage.
Shell began to run downhill better in the latter parts of the game, including one third quarter drive that went 65 plays in 10 yards, the vast majority on the ground, and resulted in a 24-17 lead with 4:40 left in the quarter. Shell was able to pick his spots, and eventually plunged in from three yards out. That proved one major point in this game, that the Mountaineers could indeed run power inside the red zone, and that was a key.
West Virginia’s passing game was also solid, but showed the deficiencies it had earlier in the season with drops, overthrows and some missed open receivers despite some solid pass blocking. Skyler Howard displayed his toughness, however, and was able to make several needed plays. In the end, though, this game was won by the line and backfield – including Howard, who Holgorsen said got WVU into the correct run calls all game.
“He may not be flashy, he may not make a bunch of guys miss,” Holgorsen said of Howard, “But he gets in the right play and goes downhill. We had two backs who averaged 7.5 yards per carry. That’s a credit to the offensive line, but Skyler has a role in that, too. He’s getting us in the right plays, and they have to account for him. Overall, I was happy.”
Because it was, in the end, a must-have win that salved the leftover October soreness and served much like the quote from the 1993 football piece “The Program,” when the coaching staff is walking off the field after a win.
“Well, we get to keep the house for another week.”
Indeed. Now let’s pack it for Texas.