By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Somewhere Don Nehlen is smiling.
You remember Don Nehlen, the winningest football coach in West Virginia University history, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, the man who loved to run draw plays on third-and-30 … and sometimes got away with it.
Well, Don Nehlen saw the new-look West Virginia Mountaineers and while they didn’t look very good escaping with a 24-17 victory over FBC opponent William & Mary, they developed a new personality … a running personality.
Remember, this was a team that year ago had Geno Smith at quarterback, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey at wide receiver and would throw the football 50 times a game.
No more, and coach Dana Holgorsen is fine with it.
“Whatever we’re good at is what we’re going to do,” the coach said after rushing 44 times for 204 yards in the come-from-behind victory. “It doesn’t matter if we win by one or win by 40 or if we throw 50 passes and win or run 50 times and win.”
Holgorsen had gone into the game with an unsure situation at quarterback, having battled all through camp and the last two weeks between Paul Millard, last year’s backup, and Clint Trickett, the transfer from Florida State.
He settled on Millard the night before the opener, telling him after practice.
Who knew how Millard would handle it? He wasn’t nervous; that’s for sure.
“I slept like a baby,” he said.
He may have slept like a baby but he played like a man, completing his first 8 passes, finishing with 19 completions in 25 attempts for 237 yards and a touchdown while Trickett played only two series and was 0-for-2 throwing.
“The closer it got to game day, the communication between Paul and me was better,” Holgorsen said. “That is, his experience on seeing the signals and communicating them.”
But the depth on the offense was at running back with Charles Sims, Wendell Smallwood, Dreamius Smith and Dustin Garrison, and Holgorsen is determined to use it.
“We have to figure out what we do well,” Holgorsen said.
Newcomer Sims from Houston made a big difference, rushing for 120 yards on 23 carries while scoring the first touchdown of the season on a nifty little 5-yard run that included a tricky stutter step and a cut into the open.
Holgorsen was disappointed only in the fact that didn’t break anything longer than 19 yards on the ground.
“It’s disappointing we didn’t get loose,” he said. “We ran the ball probably more than at any time during the history of my coaching career, but I felt like it was the right thing to do. They were dropping a lot of people and you couldn’t really get a read on if they were going to drop them or blitz them.”
In truth, the running game helped the passing game which saw new starter Millard complete 19 of 25 for 237 yards and a touchdown of 69 yards to wide receiver Ronnie Carswell.
“We started running the ball effectively and they started creeping up,” Millard explained. “We were getting 4-, 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-yard gains and when those safeties start creeping up, that’s when you can go over the top. You have to know when you can do that, and Ronnie made a great play.”
Ronnie is Ronald Carswell, a former Alabama receiver now at WVU who caught a 69-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 17-all in the third quarter.
But that’s getting ahead of things.
William & Mary had used a pair of spectacular plays, passes from quarterback Michael Graham to receiver Tre McBride, who made leaping grabs inside the 5, to rush to a 17-7 halftime advantage.
“There was no panic at halftime,” said defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. “I just told them to do what they are coached to do. There’s no magic all.”
And so it was. The defense pitched a second-half shutout, helped by some spectacular punting by Nick O’Toole, who averaged 50.6 yards a punt, the running game pounded away and eventually Millard hooked up with Carswell.
In the end, the Mountaineers took the ball down to the goal line, gave it to freshman Wendell Smallwood, who burst in from 2 yards out and WVU had the lead.
Nehlen also had his smile … and think of it this way.
Next week WVU plays at Oklahoma, a tall order, but then Nehlen’s first really great regular-season victory at WVU was at Oklahoma.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.