West Virginia running back Noel Devine takes a handoff from quarterback Geno Smith during the first half of last Saturday's game at Louisville.
By Colin Dunlap Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Going into this season the West Virginia running attack was thought to be singular and easily identifiable.
Give senior back Noel Devine the football, watch him attempt to dance through and around defenses and repeat about 25 times per game.
Indeed, that is how things shook out for the first three games of the season -- all wins for the Mountaineers, as Devine carried 23, 23 and 27 times and put up three consecutive 100-yard plus games.
Then came Sept. 25.
That steamy night in Baton Rouge, in a loss against LSU, Devine injured his toe on a late hit out of bounds, carried the ball just 14 times and the running back -- and running game -- has not been the same since.
In the six games since LSU, West Virginia (7-3, 3-2 Big East) is 4-2 and Devine's carries per game has dipped to an average of 16.2.
He has had just one 100-yard game -- a loss against Syracuse -- since the opening three games and is averaging 72.8 rushing yards in the past six games.
Devine has shut himself off from media interviews since the LSU game.
However, there seems to be a few positives beginning to take shape.
First, Devine carried the ball 23 times and scored on a 2-yard run in Saturday's 17-10 win against Louisville. Also, he pulled in a 48-yard pass that set up a touchdown.
There was near-miss, too, when West Virginia coach Bill Stewart felt as if the perfect play had been called for Devine, who would break past the scrimmage line, get in the clear and have only an overmatched safety to beat.
But something crazy happened on the way to the end zone.
"One time he was on the safety [one-on-one], and Eric Jobe tackled him" Stewart said of Devine being tripped by the West Virginia offensive lineman. "Honest to God, Eric Jobe tackled him, I wanted to cry."
If the Louisville game is an accurate barometer Devine seems to be regaining strength in that toe and becoming more versatile by coming out of the backfield and losing himself behind defenses.
"It was man coverage and just a miscommunication," Louisville senior linebacker Daniel Brown said of the 48-yard Devine catch, one of three he made against the Cardinals.
Nonetheless, Devine running the route, surprising the Cardinals by poking out of the backfield and getting downfield as a receiver, caused that miscommunication.
Devine looks to be bouncing back into form with Pitt and Rutgers left on the regular season schedule.
Because of Devine's injury, offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen has been forced to use different players in the running game, apparently cultivating a true backup tailback (sophomore Shawne Alston) and moving hybrid back Ryan Clarke back to his traditional role as a third-down and short-yardage specialist.
In addition, quarterback Geno Smith has shown a penchant to tuck the ball and run in the past three games, carrying the ball 31 times.
But Alston's surge has been the greatest offshoot of the Devine injury. He came into the season with his role in question and through the first eight games, gained only 32 yards on six carries.
In the past two games -- wins against Cincinnati and Louisville -- Alston had 24 carries for 111 yards.