WVU Looks To Repeat Running Success Vs. Iowa State
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In a college football world that has gone hi-tech skyward, West Virginia has disguised a retro running game inside an aerial circus.
No one will ever question that the focal point of the offense is the man with the golden arm, Will Grier, and his legion of sure-handed and dangerous passing targets, but this is a team that can run and, more importantly, knows how to utilize its running backs in an offense that includes a number of pass plays that are really no more than extended handoffs to those backs.
This becomes extremely important this week as the Mountaineers, who have risen to the No. 6 spot in both rankings despite having one of their games cancelled, travel to Iowa State for the toughest challenge as of yet on their schedule.
Ames, Iowa, is not a tourist attraction and it is hardly a place where you want to bring a 5-0 record to continue a drive toward the Big 12 title and maybe the national playoffs, but that’s what they have at 7 p.m. (Eastern) Saturday on Fox Sports 1.
And, if they are going to win, the running game figures to be the most important aspect of the day.
“Critical, without a doubt,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. “We ran the ball against them last year. I don’t remember the number exactly, but I was happy with how we ran the ball against them last year.”
Well, here are the numbers. West Virginia ran the ball 47 times — throwing it just 25 times — and gained 208 yards on the ground in a 20-16 victory over Iowa State.
“They give us favorable boxes, but they do a really nice job of filling gaps from second and third-level defenders, which usually means that you can get five, but getting 8 to 10 is hard,” Holgorsen continued.
“You have to be patient with that, and I thought that we did an outstanding job last year being patient with running the ball. Last week, we did the same thing. I thought we did a good job of running the ball until we got into the red zone and then we didn’t do a good job at that.”
A year ago the top running back was Justin Crawford, who gained 102 yards in the game. Kennedy McKoy, who returns this year, gained 60 yards.
But this is a different running attack, one where the wealth is shared all the way around and where the leading rusher is a bruising true freshman named Leddie Brown. Brown has gained 296 yards, and has a pair of 100-yard games while sharing duties with McKoy, who has 288 yards, and Martell Pettaway, who has 213.
They are in many ways similar backs although Brown draws the most attention because he is just a freshman.
“I don’t think he blinks,” offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, “and I think that’s one of the main things about him. Obviously, he has all of the physical tools, he has the intangibles. But the thing about him is the work ethic. He puts the work in, he has a tremendous work ethic.”
“He’s a freak athlete,” adds Grier. “He’s big and loves the game. He’s passionate and runs hard. He’s going to continue to get better; he’s a really good player.”
“How hard he runs,” McKoy answered when asked what he likes about Brown. “How hard he hits the hole. He’s very quick with his decisions. When he plants his foot down, he likes to go straight forward. That’s a good thing for him right now and why he’s effective.”
But he’s only part of the show.
“That group as a whole challenges each other, they practice really hard as a group in every aspect — pass blocking, getting out of the backfield and run game,” Grier said. “It shows that practice translates, and these guys practice hard, and they’re all playing at a really high level right now.”
The way WVU has run the ball has helped the passing game, and the way they challenge downfield through the air with their wide receivers, has helped their ability to throw the backs.
“It’s really effective,” Grier said. “They do a great job, they are great athletes, so they get out of the backfield and catch the ball really well. It’s another level to our offense; we want to be multiple and that adds something to it.
“We trust those guys to not only run the ball between the tackles but also get out in space and make plays. I’m really happy with where that group is at as a whole.”
Three of their nine catches as a group have gone for touchdowns.