One game doesn’t make a trend. It may start one, but there is a long way to go before the process is solidified.
So it is for the Mountaineer rushing attack, which gashed Eastern Kentucky for 329 yards in the season opener on Sept. 12.
It was the first time WVU had eclipsed the 300-yard rushing mark since 2016, when a Justin Crawford-led effort posted 388 yards on Oklahoma, 331 by Crawford alone.
West Virginia’s ground blitz to start the 2020 campaign came on the heels of the worst rushing season in school history, as WVU averaged just 73.2 yards per game on the ground in 2019, the first year under new head coach Neal Brown.
Brown made improving the run offense his biggest offseason project. The first game of 2020 showed signs of success, but West Virginia’s coach quickly pointed out his offense must achieve similar results against Big 12 competition before he’s satisfied.
“My comfort level is improving, though I don’t think we’ve arrived yet,” said Brown when asked about his run game, which averaged 6.5 yards per carry against the Colonels. Last year WVU managed just 3.8 yards per carry
“We’ve got to continue to prove we’re better on Sept. 26 (against Oklahoma State) and moving forward,” WVU’s head coach continued. “Just because we ran the ball well against Eastern Kentucky and our offensive line played better doesn’t mean we’ve arrived yet. That’s what we were supposed to do. Now we didn’t always do what we were supposed to do last year, so Saturday was a step in the right direction. We’ve got to be able to continue to do that and sustain it against good people at the Power 5 level in our conference.”
West Virginia running backs Leddie Brown and Alec Sinkfield each rushed for 123 yards against Eastern. It’s the 50th time in WVU history that the Mountaineers have had twin 100-yard rushers.
It was a common occurrence in the Pat White days, as the former West Virginia QB did it 14 times with some combination of either Steve Slaton (9 times), Noel Devine (4 times) or Owen Schmitt (1 time).
But that kind of dual threat hasn’t been at all common since White graduated in 2008. There have been only three such performances in the past 12 years, and none since Crawford (125 yards) and Kennedy McKoy (105 yards) torched Kansas in 2017.
The 123-yard marks were career highs for both Brown and Sinkfield, and it was the third 100-yard performance in Leddie’s career.
As for Sinkfield, the 5-foot-9, 193-pound junior had never amassed more than 27 rushing yards in a game in his previous two seasons.
“’Sink’ is a guy who has been really productive the last six weeks in comparison to where he was last year,” explained West Virginia’s second-year head coach. “He’s added some bulk (up five pounds from ‘19) and is more decisive.
“He took coaching at the end of the year last year,” Brown added of Sinkfield. “He was really hungry to play more, and (running back) Coach (Chad) Scott gave him detailed things to work on. He really worked on those things. He’s been better in space and better at finishing runs. We’ll continue to script plays for him and get him touches.”
Leddie Brown stated after the win over EKU that he had made a conscious effort to try to grow closer to his offensive linemen.
“Chemistry is a positive no matter what,” agreed the head coach. “Leddie has a lot of respect for the guys up front. They’ve worked extremely hard. Some of them have been here as long as he has. As Leddie has gone through the growth process, so have they.
“There is mutual respect there. I think he has more confidence in them now than he probably did a year ago. I think that relationship will continue to grow, and our hope is that it continues to be productive.”
As for that offensive line, it had to do some reshuffling for the opener, as two projected starters, senior center Chase Behrndt and sophomore tackle Junior Uzebu, were suspended for the first game. Freshman Zach Frazier took over at center, while redshirt freshman Brandon Yates got the start at left tackle. They worked well with the holdover first-teamers – sophomore left guard James Gmiter, senior right guard Mike Brown and junior right tackle John Hughes.
“Without a doubt, Mike played his best game in a Mountaineer uniform,” Neal Brown said of Mike Brown, who also started six games last year. “He graded out at 87 percent, which was the highest grade of anybody who played on the o-line.
“We took him out in the third quarter with an injury, but he’ll be fine, he’ll be back.”
As for Frazier, he became the first true freshman offensive lineman to start a game for the Mountaineers since at least 1980.
“I was impressed with what Zach did in his first college action,” stated Brown. “To me, center is the hardest position to play early (in a career), but he did it and did it well. I was not only proud of how he performed, but how he prepared during the week.”
Frazier is a Fairmont Senior (W.Va.) High product, and he was one of three former Polar Bears to start for West Virginia in the opener, along with defensive linemen Darius Stills and Dante Stills. Two other FSHS alums, defensive end Rhett Heston and linebacker Jake Abbott, also received snaps in reserve roles.
Yates got his first college start Saturday as well, and Brown liked most of what he saw from the 6-foot-4, 306-pounder from Las Vegas.
“I thought Yates did a nice job,” said West Virginia’s coach. “The unique situation for him is he got here late last year (in August of 2019), so he’s still never gone through a full summer conditioning program either year. He’s very young physically, but I thought he did a nice job. He’s got to be more consistent. His good plays were really good, but there were too many negative plays by him. He’ll continue to get better as we move along.”
A strong performance in the 2020 season opener was nice, but still the reality is it was against a FCS opponent. West Virginia will face considerably better defenses in the weeks ahead, and that will provide a proper gauge on how much progress the Mountaineer run game has made since last year.
“At times it was really good, but at other times it could have been better,” Brown said of his offensive line’s physicality. “I would have liked for us to chase the ball and finish plays better. I want to play with a little tougher mentality through the game, but I thought I saw some signs.”