MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Several days prior to the Mountaineers’ first football game of the 2020 season, WVU head coach Neal Brown was asked if his team’s rushing attack would be improved from last year.
“We better be,” was his short and succinct answer.
West Virginia averaged just 73.2 yards per game on the ground in 2019, which was not only last in the Big 12 but also one worst marks among all FBS programs.
The Mountaineers’ second-year head coach wasn’t ready to declare the problem permanently solved after his club ran over, around and through Eastern Kentucky for 329 yards in Saturday’s opener, but it sure was a whole lot better than any output WVU had last year. West Virginia managed to rush for more than 98 yards in just two of its 12 games in 2019 – 173 against N.C. State and 192 against Kansas.
WVU nearly bettered those figures in the first half alone against the Colonels, ripping off 170 rushing yards in the opening 30 minutes, and then adding another 159 in the final two quarters for a total of 329. It’s the best single-game rushing total by the Mountaineers since 2016.
“How many press conferences have we led off with a run-game question, which was legit?” asked Brown after West Virginia’s ground attack led it to a 56-10 victory over EKU. “We started putting a plan together in November on how to get (the rushing offense) better. You are not going to be a championship program and win at an elite level in the Big 12 unless you can run the ball and stop the run. We were OK stopping the run last year (159.4 ypg), but we ran the ball putrid.
“So we put together a plan,” continued Brown. “I spent a lot of my quarantine time on that. (Offensive coordinator) Gerad (Parker) also had a role in it, (offensive line coach) Matt (Moore) had a role in it, (tight ends coach Travis) Trickett had a role in it, and (running back coach) Chad Scott had a role in it.”
Despite some changes in West Virginia’s offensive line brought about by one-game suspensions to a pair of starters, WVU front blocked well against Eastern Kentucky. Sophomore James Gmiter and senior Mike Brown started at the two guard spots, just as expected, and junior John Hughes was in his place at right tackle, but senior center Chase Behrndt and sophomore left tackle Junior Uzebu missed the opportunity to play in the opener because of disciplinary suspensions. In their place, redshirt freshman Brandon Yates started at left tackle, and true freshman Zach Frazier started at center. A Fairmont, West Virginia, product, Frazier is the first true freshman offensive lineman to start a game for the Mountaineers in over 40 years.
“Our offensive line has communicated better through the entirety of (preseason) camp,” explained Brown. “We’ve had less run-throughs, less negative plays.
“I also felt that Leddie (Brown, WVU’s junior running back), once we started to practice in a physical nature the past few weeks, he’s really risen his game. He’s broken tackles, so to see him run for over 100+, I was happy for him, and it was well deserved.”
Leddie rushed for career-high 123 yards on 10 carries, scoring two touchdowns on the ground and also adding another TD on a 15-yard reception. His rushing total was equaled by another Mountaineer junior, Alec Sinkfield, who had never rushed for more than 27 yards in a game the previous two years, but dashed for 123 on 15 attempts against EKU.
Brown and Sinkfield are the first pair of WVU runners to each top the 100-yard rushing mark in the same game since Kennedy McKoy (105) and Justin Crawford (125) both did it against Kansas in 2017.
“All fall camp, we’ve run the ball well,” said Leddie Brown. “The first group of linemen did an excellent job. I love the fat boys.
“In the offseason, I concentrated on getting more lean, getting the baby fat off me,” noted the 5-foot-11, 210-pounder. “I feel a little quicker with that.”
Certainly West Virginia will face much better opponents in the weeks ahead than it did in the season opener at Mountaineer Field. The Colonels’ defense was also ripped for 282 rushing yards in their 59-0 loss to Marshall last week, so EKU obviously won’t be the biggest challenge for West Virginia this year.
Still, it’s a nice sign.
“Just because we did it today doesn’t mean all the sudden we’ve arrived,” stated WVU’s head coach. “We’ve got to go to Stillwater and do it there (when WVU faces Oklahoma State on Sept. 26) and then we have to do it against Baylor and we’ve got to do it against the other people to be competitive in our league.
“But it was a start.”