West Virginia head coach Neal Brown often, if not always, names running the football as one of his team’s keys to winning the upcoming game.
The Mountaineers have been able to check this off the list in all four of their games this season, despite being 2-2. West Virginia’s success on the ground can be attributed to the emergence of the offensive line, as well as its tandem of running backs.
“In a sense, the offensive line is what you build your team around,” Mountaineers offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “They’ve done a heck of a job. The running backs have done a great job just going forward.”
West Virginia’s most recent tally was a 218-yard performance on the ground in the win over Virginia Tech.
The Mountaineers’ rushing success led to the Hokies’ defense being very fatigued in the second half, thus having Harrell lean on the backfield more and more with play-calling.
Quarterback JT Daniels even said during a point in the game he wanted to run the ball instead of a pass play suggested by Harrell.
“It’s fine even if you’re only getting two or three yards a play, as long as you’re not going backwards,” Harrell said. “That’s been something that’s really helped us in the run game. I don’t feel like we’ve taken many negative-yard runs.
“A lot of that has to do with the offensive line. When you’re getting positive yards every time you do it, you gotta keep calling it. If running the ball is gonna give us the best chance to win, we’re gonna run it.”
The Mountaineers’ win percentage in this circumstance can back up Harrell’s confidence. West Virginia improved to 15-2 under Brown when rushing for more than 100 yards.
West Virginia’s trio of young running backs, including freshman phenom CJ Donaldson, redshirt sophomore Tony Mathis and sophomore Justin Johnson, have combined to rush for 806 yards and nine touchdowns through four games.
Donaldson, standing at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, has compiled 380 yards and six of the scores, all while not even being stopped behind the line of scrimmage once in his 52 attempts. He tallied 106 yards on 23 rushes while snagging three passes against Virginia Tech.
“His conditioning was better,” Brown said of Donaldson. “He got 26 touches. It might not be that high next game. He, along with the whole team, will be tested in Austin.
“We’re gonna play all three running backs, especially if all three can run effectively.”
As Harrell mentioned, the effectiveness will be based around the performance of the Mountaineers’ offensive line.
The West Virginia front has focused on details such as steps, pad level and pad placement since the off-season, and the hard work has paid off, as the group is hearing consistent compliments from the coaching staff.
“It’s all about those little details,” Mountaineers lineman James Gmiter said. “Things like that have killed us in the past. We harped on those, and now it’s starting to show.
“The other this is the trust that Graham shows in us. Having a coach that trusts the O-line to go four it on fourth down is really big to us, and we want to make sure we get it. Having people that have confidence in us really boosts us up.”
West Virginia’s offensive line understands that it was a part of a rebuilding project, but through four years of development, the results have shown.
The Mountaineers have averaged 217.5 rushing yards per game this season. This comes after posting just 73.3 yards per contest in Brown’s first season in 2019.
“We went young to start, took some lumps, and now we’re reaping the benefits,” Brown said. “It’s gone from a weakness to now what we feel is a strength of ours. Now we have to carry that forward into the heart of our conference schedule.”