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September 30, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Garrison breaks from the back pack

MORGANTOWN — For someone who was weaned on Jim Brown and Gale Sayers, who watched O.J. Simpson run for 2,000 yards in an NFL season and Walter Payton run for 16,726 yards in his professional career, watching a team throw the football 65 times in a game while ignoring the run game is like having someone scratch their nails across a chalkboard.

True, there is no more Brown, Sayers, Simpson or Payton, to say nothing of there not being any chalkboards anymore, either, meaning that the world has evolved into something far different than it ever was.

Certainly, Dana Holgorsen has brought West Virginia a game that is unrecognizable as football to the longtime connoisseur, but even as it was cranking out 65 passes against LSU there was at least a glimmering of hope that the run will not become completely extinct in West Virginia.

At a school where a quarterback named Patrick White once ran for 247 yards in a single game, four of his carries producing touchdowns, and where a running back named Kay-Jay Harris once ran for 337 yards in a single game, again four carries producing touchdowns, it is difficult to imagine that such a glimmer of hope would come in a game where the entire team rushed for 70 yards.

Yet, indeed, it happened, for the offensive line suddenly began to grasp what this blocking thing is all about and a true freshman running back who had carried the ball but three times previously showed flashes of the kind of ability that might make him special.

Now the first question that comes to mind is whether Holgorsen will use him, or any other running back, enough to give some semblance of balance to the attack. Holgorsen answered that question during his weekly press briefing, tying it into his situation at hand in this, his first year at WVU.

“It depends on if you have three freshmen or if you have an All-American back out there. We’re searching for guys that are every down backs, which we don’t have. Dustin came out last week and gave us a half of really good football. His production in one half of football was as good of a performance as we’ve had in one half this year.

“When we had a guy like Kendall Hunter (at Oklahoma State last year) who’s about to start for the 49ers, that means you have to give it to that guy a little more. We’ll get to the point that we trust our guys more and give them the ball more.”

Having given Hunter the ball enough that he could gain 1,500 yards last season is evidence that Holgorsen is smart enough to use a weapon when he has it, even if it means he has to do it on the ground.

There was a kind of poetic justice in Garrison stepping forward in the LSU game, considering his oft-told story.

He and his family were living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, escaping to Texas. The area in which he lived was so completely devastated that rather than returning they remained in Texas, where he became a high school phenom and caught college scouts eyes.

“I grew up in New Orleans,

loving LSU. My whole family loved LSU, but that whole day my family was West Virginia fans,” Garrison said.

As someone who had no college experience, the game seemed to be flying around him when he first got a chance to play. There is a certain irony in the fact that for a speedy back to excel, he must slow down so that he can go fast … and so it was with Garrison.

“The past couple of games it kind of slowed down for a whole bunch of us. I know it was hard for [freshman running backs Andrew ]Buie and Vernard [Roberts] in the first game because we’d never played a college game before. After that, it slowed down a lot.”

What exactly does a freshman running back mean, when he talks about the game slowing down for him?

“Before, like running the ball, it was moving so fast. The holes weren’t there or were there for a second. I saw the holes a lot faster this time and was able to hit them a lot quicker than I had been,” he said.

He was ready this time around and got 10 carries, beginning with a couple at the end of the first half in which he gained 23 yards. True, LSU was not geared to stop the run at the end of the half, willing to concede yardage for time of the clock, but WVU had been so starved for a ground game that any progress seemed like a six-course meal.

Part of it, too, was a step forward by the offensive line, which had its best day of the year.

True, they didn’t muscle LSU out of the way often, but they showed an ability to open some holes.

“Our deal, we weren’t just going to sit there and pound the ball at them. No one is going to do that,” offensive line coach Bill Bedanbaugh said. “They are big, physical guys who will stop the run. Did we open some holes? Yeah, but they closed quickly. Things are open, but you have to hit them quick.

“Our backs did fine. The yards we got we were supposed to get. It’s hard to bust a big run on them.

“We were efficient in the run game to where we had maybe two negative runs. The week before, against Mississippi State, they had 18 negative runs against LSU and they average 320 yards rushing a game.”

Garrison probably elbowed his way past Buie, Roberts and Shawn Alston to get first crack against Bowling Green, but this is going to be a season-long competition.

“We all have done good and coach [Robert] Gillespie gives everyone their chance,” Garrison said. “Everyone is getting his reps. Everyone is out there for certain things, whether it’s screen passes or running the ball.”

They all help one another, yet are caught up in this competition, creating an interesting dynamic.

“In the beginning it was kind of tough because we didn’t know much about each other, but as time went on we got to learn things about each other … where we came from and things like that. It brought us together. Right now we’re still the best of friends, but we’re still fighting for a job on the field to help win some games,” Garrison said.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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