Injuries hobble Mountaineers' run game
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One thing is clear about No. 9 West Virginia this morning: The team with the seemingly perfect offense actually has some vulnerabilities.
The long-awaited Big 12 Conference opener against Baylor is next and comes on the heels of the team's first real test of the season, a 31-21 win against Maryland Saturday in Morgantown.
The biggest problem in the game was a stalled running attack because the team's most reliable back was absent for much of the game.
That changed the complexion of the offense. Quarterback Geno Smith was sacked twice, hurried into decisions and was clearly rattled at times.
Consider that West Virginia's past three contests included blowouts against Clemson in last season's Orange Bowl by a score of 70-33, a 69-34 rout of Marshall to open this season and a 42-12 thrashing of I-AA James Madison.
"Everything we were doing out there seemed hard," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said on Saturday. "Maybe we'd just been spoiled for the last three games with the success that we've had."
The team's depth at running back appears questionable at best after the team rushed for just 25 net yards against the Terrapins. Running back Shawne Alston, the team's 236-pound workhorse, was on the sideline for nearly all of the game with a bruised thigh.
Dustin Garrison made his first appearance of the season since knee surgery last winter but the plan was to limit him to 10-15 snaps, said running backs coach Robert Gillespie. That left the bulk of work to sophomore Andrew Buie who had just 33 yards on 14 carries.
Alston hadn't practiced much last week, Gillespie said, and the return of Garrison took some pressure off him needing to play. But Alston's hallmark toughness and blocking ability, combined with an inability by the offensive line to control the line of scrimmage, created a major void.
"Obviously, we need every piece of the puzzle, but we just need to be strong enough to close the gap when [Alston's] not playing," said Gillespie. "Hopefully he'll bounce back and be ready to play next week."
Another problem was the loss of fullback Ryan Clarke to injury during the game, limiting the team's ability to block well in the backfield.
The offense didn't score a rushing touchdown, the first time that happened since Oct. 14, 2010, in a 20-6 win against South Florida.
Gillespie said Garrison is at about 85 percent right now, and he suspects he'll be near 100 percent by midseason.
"He was wanting to get in. He had that look in his eyes. Hopefully we can build on it from there on out," said Gillespie.
As for the depth, the cabinet is fairly empty after that.
"That's just the way it is," said Gillespie. "The numbers aren't what you want them to be but nobody wants to hear you complain about it. We've just got to keep playing. We're going to fight with the guys we have."
NOTE -- The Mountaineers dropped from No. 8 to No. 9 in the AP Top 25 poll on Sunday. Baylor, Saturday's opponent, moved into the poll at No. 25.
First Published September 24, 2012 12:00 am