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Despite Talented Backfield, West Virginia Ground Game Stuck in Second Gear

Schuyler Callihan

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Photo by David Hague

Heading into the 2019 football season, one thing felt certain — West Virginia had a loaded backfield. Many Big 12 football fans and analysts agreed that WVU may have the deepest stable of horses in the conference.

Despite the talent in the running back room, the Mountaineers have struggled to run the football this season for various reasons. The offensive line has been inconsistent, and edge blocking from the receivers hasn’t necessarily been that great, either. West Virginia’s three primary backs (McKoy, Pettaway, Brown) are not getting the touches necessary to carry the offense.

Here are their stats after the first five games of the season:

McKoy: 54 car, 181 yards, 3 TD (3.35ypc; 10.8 carries/game)

Pettaway: 27 car 72 yards 2 TD (2.67ypc; 5.4 carries/game)

Brown*: 25 car 130 yards 1 TD (5.2ypc; 8.3 carries/game)

*Brown has only played in three games.

How much do their touches need to increase for the offense to find more success? In my opinion, they need to be way more involved. With a first-year starting quarterback and an overwhelming amount of inexperience at receiver, WVU has to help those guys out by running the ball. These backs are some of the most talented players on the team, so the coaching staff needs to find creative ways to get them the football.

Now, I know the Texas secondary was beaten and battered, but holding onto the football longer and keeping the defense off the field could have helped your chances. The less time Ehlinger has to work with, the less he or any other quarterback will have time to make things happen. It also takes a tremendous amount of pressure off of Austin Kendall as he continues to develop.

I don’t believe running the ball fifty times a game is the answer, but I’m not sure throwing fifty times is necessarily the answer either. It’s hard to get all three RBs a bunch of playing time, but giving those three more touches likely means more production.

Surprisingly, through the first weekend of October, West Virginia sits dead last in the Big 12 is rushing attempts per game (31), total rushing attempts (155), rushing yards (525), yards per carry (3.39) and yards per game (105). The Mountaineers also currently have the 119th best rushing attack in the country — out of 130 teams.

Is this why Coach Brown is hesitant to lean on the run? I don’t think so. The rushing attack was essentially Casper the Friendly Ghost in the opening games against James Madison and Missouri, but it has  since started to find some sort of a pulse. It’s an extremely odd situation, and hell, I’m not so sure I even have it figured out.

To me, those numbers are slightly skewed, minus the rushing attempts per game. It’s hard to get any ground game going only running the ball 31 times a game. Now, moving the chains is an area that has plagued West Virginia, too. The Eers are only converting 37.6% of third down conversions —good for 8th in the Big 12 and 77th in the country. Getting behind the chains is another factor that can stall the run game.

West Virginia dominated Kansas in time of possession a few weeks ago, holding possession for 37 minutes. Against Texas, it was pretty much the exact opposite. Oddly enough, with time not in West Virginia’s favor, on top of a cascade of turnovers, WVU somehow only trailed by one score heading into the fourth quarter. If WVU controls the clock a little more and converts a few more third down opportunities, there’s a damn good chance they send Texas back home with a loss.

Coach Brown knows his team way better than I ever would, but simply looking at numbers, it would suggest holding onto the ball longer, feeding the backs, and keeping the defense off the field as much as possible. A ground approach might buy West Virginia a few more wins this season.

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