By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Andrew Buie dodged the question as if it were one of those red-clad Oklahoma linebackers who will be chasing him on Saturday night.
And while it was clearly a totally proper question and one that has been on the mind of nearly every West Virginia University football fan, it was asked rather straight-forward and bluntly by a gentleman who has reached such an age that he has neither time nor patience to beat around the bush.
“Why do you think the running game has not been more productive?” he asked, standing in a group behind the WVU running back’s right shoulder.
Buie looked straight ahead, a number of thoughts clearly racing through his mind, none of which he properly wanted to verbalize.
After a pregnant pause, Buie simply said, “No comment.”
Which not only is right, but in truth how could anyone expect him to have an answer to that when the offensive minds which have devised the offense don’t have an answer?
West Virginia started the season with an ability to put up yardage on the ground as well as through the air, which helped account for that 5-0 start and the gaudy numbers that twinkled on the scoreboard.
If Maryland did expose a problem in Game No. 3, the first game in which Shawne Alston, the power back, was derailed with injury, by holding WVU to just 25 rushing yards, the Mountaineers seemed to have the problem solved by coming back with games of 151, 192 and 140 yards.
Considering that the 192 came against Texas, one had no worries about the running game at that point, but the deterioration of the running game has been obvious over the last three games in which WVU ran for 88, 78 and 78 yards.
This, of course, led for a similar question to be asked of coach Dana Holgorsen during his afternoon press conference on Tuesday, whether or not the lack of rushing yardage has become an issue within the offense.
Holgorsen was willing to take that linebacker of a question head on.
“It is a huge issue, and we are going to work hard on it this week,” he said.
As for why the running game hasn’t been productive, as was asked Buie, Holgorsen had an answer, not exactly one he would like to give on every question of that sort.
“We did a poor job of establishing the line of scrimmage. Look at all our third-and-shorts. We have no push. We had none. We were garbage on third-and-short, fourth-and-short, when we handed the ball off,” he said.
Garbage was his word.
The indictment was clear, though. This wasn’t a running back problem, not even a problem of having Alston barely back and Dustin Garrison not much further along as he fights back from knee surgery.
No, to Holgorsen, West Virginia was not running the ball effectively because his offensive line was … well, as Holgorsen thought about it, he realized the offensive line was not alone in this.
“That is combination of just not controlling the line of scrim-
mage up front and not having good enough running backs to be able to get the yards that we need,” he said. “You can blame it on what you want to. Shawne (Alston) is hurt. It is not what people want to hear, but he is hurt. That is why he is not playing.
“Dustin (Garrison) is still six months out from being where he was last year, which means we put it in the hands of Andrew Buie, who is averaging almost five yards a rush, but you give it to him 20 times a game, he is going to wear down.”
Indeed, we’re not talking about Owen Schmitt here.
“He is not that type of guy who can handle that many carries,” Holgorsen said. “We are working extremely hard to recruit about five or six running backs who can come in here and give us help and until that happens, it is what it is.”
The truth is, Holgorsen does have on his roster one of the greatest running backs in high school history in Tavon Austin, whose credentials are chronicled in the WVU media guide in this sentence:
“Set Maryland records for career points (790), touchdowns (123), total offensive yards (9,258) and rushing yards (7,962).
The problem is that Austin is not a big man, either, and has found a home at slot receiver and kick returner, although Holgorsen did give him the ball more in this past loss to Oklahoma State as a runner than he had all year.
“I wish we could clone him and put three of him out there,” Holgorsen said. “We have obviously felt like he is a pretty good inside receiver, and it has always been the thing on what can we do to get the ball in his hands. And you want to get it into his hands as much as we can.
“With that said, his trade has been being an inside receiver for four years now. We will continue to try and come up with creative ways to get him the ball, because he is dynamic as it comes in college football, when it comes to him having the ball in his hands.”
Unable to run has changed so much this year, for the Mountaineers can’t force the safeties to respect the run, which has cut down on big plays, and because they can’t make short-yardage plays, it has kept them playing any kind of ball control and keeping their last-ranked defense off the field.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.