Best WVU Backfield? Pat White Makes The Claim
By Bob Hertzel
Over the past couple of days, Pat White, the former West Virginia quarterback and future College Football Hall of Famer, has put a post on Facebook that opens the door to a timely discussion.
The photo comes from a Mountaineer practice, the ball being snapped to White with Steve Slaton in position to his left and Owen Schmitt in position to his right.
The message? “The best backfield in history”, White wrote, asking for retweets from those who agree.
Personally, I have a difficult time arguing with that premise, but certainly there is room for discussion, for West Virginia not only has had some tremendous backfields stretching back into the 1950s, but expects this year’s backfield to be among its best ever.
Certainly, expectations are bubbling over Will Grier as he takes over at quarterback with a new offense to run under coordinator Jake Spavital, a stable of strong receivers to throw to and with any number of options at running back, beginning with the Big 12’s top returning rusher from last year in Justin Crawford, who has proclaimed that he is out ot break records this season.WVU
Crawford, of course, will be joined by backups Kennedy McKoy and Martell Petteway, along with newcomer Tevin Bush, while Elijah Wellman is a load to handle at fullback.
Potentially, it is a great backfield being born, much as White’s backfield was back in 2005 when he emerged in the Louisville game and Slaton blazed the trail with him.
How good was that backfield? Well, in 2006 it followed up an 11-1 season with an 11-2 year that included a school record 3,939 rushing yards with 49 rushing touchdowns, scoring more than 30 points in 11 games, then for an encore going 11-2 again in 2007, while rushing for 3,864 yards and 48 TDs.
In 2006 and 2007, White was becoming more and more confident and competent as a passer. The better backfield was probably the one in 2007 — for not only did White become a weapon with 144 completions in 216 attempts for 1,724 yards, but with 14 TDs to 4 interceptions, and with the addition of the exciting Noel Devine rushing for 639 yards and six TDs to go with Slaton’s 1,051 yards and 17 TDs.
While that probably is the greatest backfield ever at WVU, there are challengers to that title that go as far back the 1955 team, built around three WVU Hall of Famers, quarterback Fred Wyant, running back Bob Moss rushing for 807 yards and fullback Joe Marconi.
The backfield that led the 1969 team to a 10-1 record, the only loss a 20-0 shutout to Pitt, offered a lot with Mike Sherwood at quarterback, Jim Braxton at fullback and Ed Williams at running back.
Many still look to the 1988 team that nearly won a national championship, an offense built around the Hall of Fame quarterback Major Harris that scored 50 or more points five times. Harris had a good supporting cast with running back A.B. Brown rushing for 962 yards and scoring seven TDs and fullback Undra Johnson rushing for 710 yards and 11 touchdowns.
A decade later, in 1998, Don Nehlen shifted his emphasis from the ground game to the passing game to take advantage of Marc Bulger’s magic arm, the one that would carry him to decade long NFL Pro Bowl career.
Bulger had a host of great receivers in David Saunders, Shawn Foreman, Khori Ivy and tight end Anthony Becht, the latter of which also went on to a long NFL career as Bulger passed for a then-record 3,607 yards and 31 touchdowns.
But a quarterback doesn’t make a backfield and the presence of the great Amos Zereoue rushing for 1,462 yards and 13 touchdowns allowed the two to combine for more than 5,000 yards from scrimmage and 44 touchdowns.
Dana Holgorsen inherited the makings of a big-time offensive team, his first having quarterback Geno Smith throw for a record 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns while Dustin Garrison rushed for 777 yards and it had Shawne Alston and Andrew Buie combining for 600 more rushing yards.
That season culminated with the huge 70-33 victory over Clemson in the Orange Bowl and sent the team into the next season expecting even greater things. And the season started as if WVU were going to make a legitimate run at the title, scoring 260 points in the first five games — 52 a game.
But everything came undone and all WVU could muster despite the presence of Smith and receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin was 243 points over the final eight games — 30 a game, wasting Smith’s record 42 TD passes on a 7-6 season
So there you have it. Certainly, you have your favorite WVU backfield and you can’t really argue with White’s assertion that the one he quarterbacked was the best, but the game is ever evolving and the players seem to get better and better, so there’s certainly room for some other group to come along and take it up a notch.