Ground attack is the newest weapon for West Virginia

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- After the exodus of stars Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey this spring, the West Virginia offense was left with its quiver empty, searching for a new identity.

Enter Charles Sims, Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood, and it appears the Mountaineers have their answer in another three-headed attack. Sims opened the scoring, Smallwood closed it and the trio combined for 182 yards and two touchdowns Saturday in West Virginia's 24-17 victory against William & Mary.

With the coaching staff "a little bit uneasy at quarterback," the engine of the Mountaineers offense is, for the first time under coach Dana Holgorsen, its running game.

"Yeah, that's quite evident now," Holgorsen said with a chuckle.

Though Holgorsen's next comment, "We ran the ball today probably more than any time in the history of my coaching career," was a slight overstatement -- West Virginia's 44 rushing attempts were just the fourth-highest total since Holgorsen took over in 2011 -- his point stands.

The mark of the Mountaineers is now their backfield, which is stacked four players deep even after the recent departure of junior Andrew Buie, West Virginia's leading rusher last season.

The top three backs, all making their West Virginia debuts Saturday, spearheaded the second-half comeback. Rotating in and out to maintain the pace of the up-tempo offense, Sims, Smith and Smallwood wore down the Tribe's front seven. And once the safeties cheated up to help, junior quarterback Paul Millard exposed them with a 69-yard touchdown pass over the top to redshirt sophomore receiver Ronald Carswell.

Smallwood wore a wide smile, "proud to hear" his coach admit the offense's shift from a pass-first to a run-first approach. It was Smallwood who on his third carry of the game plunged into the end zone for the winning touchdown with three minutes left in the game.

"It was amazing," Smallwood said of his first career score. "I saw the end zone and just refused to not get in."

But the ringleader of the running back rotation is undoubtedly Sims, a redshirt senior transfer from Houston. Sims thrived as a freshman in 2009 when Holgorsen was offensive coordinator at Houston, and he rekindled that magic from the outset against William & Mary.

Sims shook a defender and sprinted up the seam for an 11-yard touchdown to cap the Mountaineers' opening drive, and he finished with 120 yards on 23 carries.

Still, even the featured back must contend with a crowded backfield, one that had as many as three backs, including fullback Cody Clay, on the field at a time against the Tribe.

"That's a good thing," Sims said. "You want to have as many running backs as you can. You want to stay fresh so you won't miss a beat."

Smith -- or "Dream," as the other tailbacks call him -- nodded in agreement with Sims. A third-down and change-of-pace back, Smith had 40 yards on 12 carries.

"If one guy comes out, we've got a lot more who can come in and make the exact same plays, if not bigger plays," Smith said. "That's what we're going to keep doing. We're going to use it to our advantage, wear defenses down and we're not going to stop doing this."

Five days from a matchup with No. 16 Oklahoma, which eked out a 50-49 win against the Mountaineers in November, the running attack again will be expected to buoy the offense. Austin, now a rookie with the St. Louis Rams, kept West Virginia in that game last year with 344 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

"Whatever we're good at is what we're going to do," Holgorsen said. "It doesn't matter if we throw 50 passes and win, or rush the ball 50 times and win."

wvusports

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.


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