The Times West Virginian

September 18, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Alston returns to field, makes big play for WVU

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — It was not a very merry Christmas for Shawne Alston, the West Virginia University running back who finally came out of mothballs and made a difference as the Mountaineers survived a late scare from Maryland Saturday to win, 37-31.

He had returned home to Hampton Roads, Va., for the holidays, following the Mountaineers’ loss to North Carolina State in the Champs Sports Bowl.

He was out enjoying himself, minding his own business as he sat in his car, when he was hit as he had never been hit on the football field.

“A drunk driver ran a red light and hit me from behind,” he remembers.

It was a jarring blow and, yes, as a running back, he is used to such hits, but they come when he’s wearing protective gear and ready to take the hit.

He was bounced around hard in the car, hard enough that they had to whisk him off to a local hospital where he was diagnosed with whiplash.

“I was only at the hospital a couple of hours, and when I left I thought everything was good,” he said.

Two days later he was back, suffering from severe pain.

“It was killing me,” he said.

They did what they could, which wasn’t really very much. Winter turned to spring, and spring practice came. He could not practice.

Spring turned to summer, and summer camp opened. He was still limited.

“If I was just a normal guy I could have been doing things, but I play football and the trainers were telling me football is a violent game,” he said.

And so it was the Mountaineers went into the season with a stable full of freshman running backs, Alston being their only experienced halfback, and he was unable to play.

It put a huge burden on the likes of Vernard Roberts, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie, men who never took a collegiate snap. They weren’t ready, and part of the reason was because Alston couldn’t really show them what this college game is all about.

“Normally a kid has a chance to learn from an older kid in practice, but there is no older kid. These kids are learning from each other,” running backs coach Robert Gillespie noted recently. “Getting Alston back will help from the standpoint he has played a game before.”

The result was that the running game suffered, especially in short yardage, for Alston is a bigger back than the others, a harder runner.

He was brought along slowly, safely ... until last week when he was given the go-ahead.

The timing was not coincidental. The first two games of the seasons were warm-ups, but a trip to Maryland is always a scary proposition, even if WVU has beaten the Terrapins six straight times now.

And this week is LSU ... which, whether or not the coaching staff want to put all their eggs in that basket, is considered by everyone else the game of the year. To beat the Tigers, a team whose defense will smother any one-dimensional outfit, Alston’s inside running game would be needed.

So it was the first time WVU faced a third-down situation, third-and-2 at its own 44, Alston waltzed out onto the field.

There were nerves, quite naturally, for it had been a long while since he’d played a game.

And, of course, there was a touch of uncertainty. He was in there to run the ball into the teeth of the defense, and he knew he’d get hit.

He remembers what it was like, and he enjoyed it.

The ball was snapped and given to Alston, who roared over left tackle. The blocking was crisp, the running hard and the first down was made.

“It was different. It felt good for a change,” he said.

That WVU’s Buie would fumble near the goal line to end the drive mattered not, for WVU already had a new dimension. They could be a blue-collar team if they wanted to. It wasn’t exactly a sledge hammer to add to the offense, but maybe a clenched fist.

Either way, it changed the attitude a little, brought a little interior toughness to a team that had been doing almost everything via finesse.

Alston wasn’t sure that his performance was as good as it could be.

“I had four shots at it and only made two. That’s 50 percent, and that’s not good enough,” he said.

Coach Dana Holgorsen also wasn’t completely sold on Alston’s performance.

“He did all right,” Holgorsen said. “We wanted to see what he could do. A couple of times he tiptoed in there, didn’t hit the hole well.”

That, though, will come as he gets more carries, having to settle in this game with 6 for 20, which doesn’t sound like much considering the last time the Mountaineers played at Maryland Steve Slaton carried 26 times for 137 and Noel Devine carried only five times for 136 yards in the same game.

But then, times have changed since then, haven’t they?

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.