The two are related, of course, but it remains that the Mountaineers dominated the line of scrimmage and were able to average more than seven yards per carry among two backs as Wendell Smallwood and Rushel Shell both went over the 100-yard mark. Add in the rushing ability of quarterback Skyler Howard, and they very thing head coach Dana Holgorsen has been building toward seems to have come to fruition.
Holgorsen said after the game that his team, if not his very approach to offense, has changed with the available personnel. WVU has a big-time back in Smallwood, whose vision and ability to take one cut and hit the hole has been the one dependable asset this season. It also has solid size along the front, a quarterback able to effectively run read and power football and a physical back in Shell. It all combined for 300 rushing yards and a 31-26 win over Texas Tech in which WVU ran the final 6:47 off the clock in on the final drive.
“I didn’t ever picture anybody winning a Big 12 game passing for 149 yards,” Holgorsen said. “That’s obviously something that we have to work on. We’re not going to be able to run like that against everybody. This week we’re playing against a good Texas Longhorn team that does a good job stopping the run. So we’ll get back to work and try to improve our pass game.”
Which is well and good. But it seems West Virginia’s identity this season will be of a running team, and the remaining schedule sets up nicely for that. Texas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas are the four worst rushing defenses in the Big 12, with the Longhorns allowing 238 yards to the likes of Iowa State, to say nothing of foes like Notre Dame (214), California (280) and TCU (228).
“We’re able to run the ball better than I ever have in my whole career, regardless of where I’ve been or what the personnel has been,” Holgorsen said. “We’re up over 220 yards a game rushing. It’s something we’ve been focusing on. It starts up front. We’ve got some good linemen up front that really take pride in their pad level and their run blocking stuff. The one thing Skyler Howard’s doing a good job of is getting us into the right run play. They have to account for him. He can do some things in the run game. When you have a couple good back, it certainly helps.”
Texas (4-5, 3-3 Big 12) has been able to limit some foes, and was impressive in holding Kansas State to just 135 yards on the ground. The teams that have been able to find the most success against the Longhorns have shown balance and the ability to attack multiple areas, an aspect in which WVU has struggled of late, particularly in the intermediate passing game.
“The pass protection needs to continue to improve,” Holgorsen said. “The route running needs to continue to improve. The speed with which you run the routes, the small little things within the routes, the throws need to improve and the timing needs to improve, as well. I know what it’s supposed to look like, and it’s not supposed to look like this. It needs to get better, and we’re going to continue to work hard on it.“All those receivers are going to continue to get better. Shelton Gibson’s made plays for us this year and continues to get better. Jovon Durante has made plays for us and will continue to get better. Gary Jennings is a true freshman, Ka’Raun is a true sophomore, and David Sills is a true freshman. All those guys are going to continue to improve. Our job is to continue to improve the timing and the tempo with which we are able to throw the ball. Our job is to scheme things up and get them the ball a little more than we were able to last game. I was happy that we were able to run the ball like we were. Skyler missed on a couple throws, and we needed to hand the ball to those backs. It was working, so we kept doing it.”
The match-up looms as key for both teams. Texas is trying to get back to .500 before ending the season with Texas Tech and Baylor. If UT loses in Morgantown, it’s likely it won’t make a bowl with the finale at Baylor a must-win to reach the 6-6 mark. West Virginia, at 4-4, 1-4 in the conference, is likely to be favored in their final three November games – and maybe for the remainder of the entire schedule – and can show that the program is solidly within the second-tier of the Big 12, and hasn’t fallen into the lower echelon with the likes of Iowa State and Kansas. The Mountaineers took the first step in beating Texas Tech, and a win over a mediocre Texas team would keep the momentum going into games against the worst of the league.
“I thought (Texas was) really good on defense last year,” Holgorsen said of a game in which WVU allowed the TCU loss to linger in a 33-16 loss in Austin. “They lost some guys to the NFL and are playing a lot of young guys this year. They have a lot of bodies. I see improvement, and obviously (head coach Charlie Strong) is going to get those guys playing good.”
Running backs coach JaJuan Seider, below, dissects the running game in the victory over Texas Tech.