Wendell Smallwood again proved himself the man of steal, swiping real estate against Texas to the tune of 165 yards, 105 in an efficient first half that pushed him over the 1,000 mark for the first time in his collegiate career. The junior showcased the explosion, field vision and continually churning feet that allowed him to average more than nine yards per carry over the first 30 minutes despite his longest being a 19-yarder.
And that made him even more impressive, that focus, concentration and tenacity to keep producing despite the lack of a true big play. More businesslike than anything, the sheer nature of how the yards were gained revealed a somewhat hidden side of Smallwood, the one where the back can be a workhorse.
Which is what made it so shocking, so incredibly surprising that West Virginia decided to play Rushel Shell over Smallwood on the first series of the second half. The result? Shell ran hard, but the lack of explosiveness limited the offense to a three and out. It put the defense in a bind, Texas already having marched 80 yards in 15 plays to open the third quarter and pull within 21-17. Fortunately, the odd stack got even, lassoing the Longhorns for just 13 yards on six plays to force another punt.
“You can’t give it to No. 4 every snap,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “He carried it 24 times, that’s a lot. If you sit there and hand it to him 30 times, he’s gonna wear down.”
Which is true. And this might be nitpicking, but coming out of halftime would appear the opportune time to plug in a rested player. Alas, enter Smallwood on the next series, who promptly gained 37 yards on just four plays to move the ball from the WVU 44 yard-line inside Texas’ red zone. Skyler Howard then found Daikiel Shorts in the corner of the end zone for the score, and a 28-17 lead. But it was Smallwood that provided the breathing room after not needing a breather on the first series. Frankly, his cutback ability, speed and endurance should have him playing the maximum possible plays, which the coaching staff feels he is to this point.
“He’s matured into that guy,” Holgorsen said. “He has always been a good running back the last few years. He has been so versatile. He’s turning into as good of a back that I have seen. He can run between the tackles. (But) No. 7 comes in and is a change-up for us. Howard is a change-up for us.”
It’s not that Shell isn’t capable within the short yardage, that Howard can’t run some power. But behind a developing line, West Virginia needs Smallwood’s speed and quickness more than anything else in routine game situations. He’s earned the tagline of being a gamer, of consistently bringing excellence so often it becomes expected, even in as strangely a styled Big 12 contest as any as the teams combed for 15 passes and 53 runs through the first half before more balance came in, the stats ending with a most unBig 12-like 104 rushes against 31 throws in the end.
Running backs coach JaJuan Seider, above, mentioned that Shell was hurt by a pair of plays with poor execution, including where Cody Clay went the wrong way on one and another misfit on a rushing play that would have gain major yardage. It was the reason Shell was played in the opening series, to get him rushing more downhill.
But when the game tightened up twice more, it was the backfield’s time again. First, the defense came away with wins in limiting Texas to a field goal, then forcing a fifth turnover on Nick Kwiatkoski’s interception as WVU regained possession ahead 31-20 with little more than six minutes left. Shell promptly ripped off a 16-yard run before Smallwood set-up Howard’s two-yard scoring plunge with gainers of five and 13 yards. That pushed the edge to the final 31-20, and Smallwood’s total to 165 yards on 24 carries, an average of 6.9 yards per rush.
“Those are hard yards,” said Holgorsen, who was lifted up and body surfed by his players, a la the Charlie Strong celebrations. “Those guys are good on defense. They lead the league in fewest yards per play. Once again, out O-line did a good job. Our guys are happy. It’s a good win.”
West Virginia amassed 379 total yards, 257 on the ground in grinding out yet another must-have to move to 5-4 overall, 2-4 in the league with ultimately winnable games against arguably the conference’s worst three teams to come. Texas, meanwhile, goes back to the proverbial drawing board having racked up 439 yards of offense, but failing to finish in the red zone and turning the ball over a whopping five times; the Longhorns had just seven turnovers all season entering.
In the end, it was another capital ‘W’ in the right hand column for West Virginia. And that capital ‘S’ made during the halftime performance? You judge who that tribute was for.