The Times West Virginian

Sports

November 24, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: Alston the X-Factor vs. Cyclones

MORGANTOWN — There was a time, not so very long ago, certainly at a time when Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads could remember it, when West Virginia University had an interesting mix in its backfield.

There was an All-America quarterback who could have been a Heisman Trophy winner had a couple of things broken as they were expected to break, and he saw a fleet running back who did things people couldn’t recall seeing too many others do.

At the same time the Mountaineers had a crushing fullback who ran and blocked and hit so hard that he would go through facemasks the way common football players go through the food line.

That hint, of course, lets you know we are speaking of Owen Schmitt and that 2007 team that got to the doorstep of the national championship with Pat White at quarterback and Steve Slaton running the ball.

Rhoads was at Pitt then, its defensive coordinator, and he devised a scheme that put the brakes on this juggernaut of an offense, costing them whatever gold there was in the days ahead.

Time marches on, however, and now here was Rhoads as the head coach at Iowa State, worried so badly by the modern-day West Virginia offense that he would prepare for that he said he tossed his cookies upon viewing what Tavon Austin had done against Oklahoma.

The problem was that Rhoads prepared his team to stop Austin. He prepared to stop quarterback Geno Smith, something the cold and the wind also may have had something to do with.

What he didn’t prepare for was the man who is this season’s Owen Schmitt, a 240-pound bull of a running back named Shawne Alston, who needs to be re-introduced to all of us, for he has really been a non-factor since rushing for 123 yards in the season opener against Marshall, his thigh badly damaged by a hit in the James Madison game.

Each week he tried to play, each week couldn’t, doing little than making some recent cameo appearances.

Rhoads really was prepared for Austin, whom he kept in reasonably good check throughout most of the game. And Smith’s day was pedestrian by the standards he has set this season, completing 21 of 33 passes for 236 yards and his weekly touchdown toss to Stedman Bailey.

But on the game’s second play, Alston entered and carried the ball for the first time on the third play, a bruising run of nine yards that would be the first nine yards of a 130-yard performance on 19 carries.

It, as much as anything else, was responsible for West Virginia winning, 31-24, in part because there was one touchdown in there that represented the difference in the score and in part because when they really needed a tough inside run at the end of the game to ice the victory, it was Alston who would not be denied.

“That’s the best I felt since (the Marshall game),” Alston admitted. “I struggled to get back.”

Indeed, what at first was termed a bruise to the thigh turned out to be more serious, something that affected the thigh bone and even was decalcifying it, making it impossible for him to work out.

Slowly, it healed to the point that he could work out, but he was wearing a brace and that bothered him almost as much as the injury.

“I came in on Sunday and did some testing with training staff,” he said. “They told me I could take the brace off. I thought it was restricting me some.”

In truth, the probably could have turned him loose against Oklahoma the week before, but coach Dana Holgorsen didn’t think that was a very good matchup for him, not because of the injury but because of the way Oklahoma plays its defense.

And besides, Austin was going to rush for 344 yards, so they really didn’t need him.

Now he was there with Austin, and it was a difficult combination for Rhoads to deal with, this Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside duo.

Holgorsen, of course, has been trying to find creative ways to give Austin the ball without too many defenders around him.

“Maybe having both of them back there is the answer,” Holgorsen said.

Alston’s presence gives the team a different persona, a more physical presence where they don’t have trick you on third-and-short.

“With Iowa State, you have to get in there and get tough yards, and he’s our best option,” “Gillespie said.

For most of the game, Austin was kept in check, right up until they opted to use the jet sweep, that touch pass from Geno, to him with the game on the line. The result was, of course, 75 yards of touchdown real estate covered by Austin to put WVU in front for good.

“They put a lot of attention on Tavon, so that helped me there, too,” Alston said. “It isn’t what Tavon did last week, but it was a win.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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