By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
What is it they say? The rich get richer?
That’s usually true in football, and as this season opened West Virginia’s offensive football team was the John D. Rockefeller of the East and, just maybe, of the Big 12.
It seemed to have it all, a treasure chest of riches in quarterback Geno Smith, wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, a driven, large, veteran offensive line and the fertile mind of a coach who seems light years ahead of the nation’s defensive minds.
They had put 70 points on the board in the Orange Bowl and it looked as though it was just an investment on the future, for this was a team just getting to know its own offense and its own coach Dana Holgorsen.
But if there was any kind of hole in this offense’s pocket where the riches could drain away, it had seemed to be the running game, one that seemed to be destined to be used simply as diversion from the innovative passing game.
Then came 2012, opening day against a pretty good team in Marshall. On this day the rich got much richer as Shawne Alston, whose 123-yard performance might have been predictable, and Andrew Buie, quite unexpectedly, at least to those outside the program, led a rushing attack of 331 yards.
This is Woody Hayes stuff, Bo Schembechler ... why, it was Don Nehlen and Rich Rodriguez stuff.
Alston showed himself to be as powerful as advertised at 236 pounds, but he also was far more nimble than previously thought, even when he gained 110 yards at Rutgers a year ago in a driving snowstorm and when he went for 70 yards in the Orange Bowl.
The coaches knew what was coming. Robert Gillespie is the running backs coach and he watched Alston work every day, saw his approach and how driven he was to not only make sure he was the featured back but the featured back on a great team.
“Right now Shawne Alston has carried the momentum that he had from the Orange Bowl and the momentum he had during the spring over to fall camp,” Gillespie noted in mid-camp. “So right now he’s the lead dog.”
And Holgorsen knew in Alston he could establish a different image than his offense has possessed in the past.
“We wanted to be more physical,” Holgorsen said after the Marshall game.
That was obvious from their first snap, which came not in the spread that Holgorsen loves to run, but with Geno Smith down under center, looking very Johnny Unitas-like as he handed to Buie for the season’s first play, a run.
“In the (Orange) bowl game, when Dustin (Garrison) went down, I put Shawne in and he took advantage of his opportunity,” Holgorsen said. “We all know he was hurt last year and we didn’t have him in the spring and he got better as the year went on. Then, in the offseason, he got himself in shape. He’s healthy and feels good and is a leader.
“He thinks he’s the boss of the locker room, which he probably is.”
“I definitely think I’m the baddest guy on the field,” Alston said. “It’s just an attitude you got to have. Any game I go into, any game setting, I just feel like they can’t stop me. That’s not a cocky thing, but a confidence thing.”
Do not, however, downplay the importance of Alston’s leadership abilities. It isn’t a freak of nature kind of thing.
He wants to lead, tries to lead, does lead.
“Any team you can ever think of that’s been great has always had great leaders,” Alston said during camp.
The irony of everything about the WVU running attack is that it’s the antithesis of the passing game.
Holgorsen’s passing game is based on timing and reading of keys. It is a high-tech creation, born of film study and a quarterback whose ability to control the pace of game and read his keys is far more important than the strength of his arm.
The running game, on the other hand, is bruising, with both Alston and Buie power runners behind a line of 300-pounders-plus who simply annihilated the Marshall defense, in particular 335-pound Quinton Spain being dominant in his first start at left tackle.
Buie’s power running, however, is surprising. A year ago, in fact, it was a detriment, for he would be continually injured, the result of a running style that did not fit his body.
“He runs like he’s 240 pounds,” Gillespie said of the 5-9, 188-pounder. “He has to understand that every run you don’t have to run someone over. Sometimes you get tackled, and when you do you get tackled with half your body. He understands not to take head-on shots now, when to fall forward or go down. He understands how every run should be run now.”
“He is a guy that plays reckless,” Holgorsen concurred. “He plays so hard, sometimes I think he just closes his eyes and just runs into people. He’s becoming a better space guy. He’s always been a try-hard, effort guy. He and Dustin were two totally different backs last year. Buie is a guy who has been playing really well and I probably should have given him the ball a little bit more.”
The game certainly put Buie on the map, considering he averaged 13.3 yards a carry.
“I guess a little,” he said when that was brought up. “It felt good to get out there after a long summer. I felt we were a good one-two punch. We’ve just been practicing hard. We do have a chip on our shoulder because people downgrade our running game.”
Geno Smith understands what kind of message was put out with this performance from the two running backs.
“I think that’s scary for a defense,” Smith said. “We have speed backs, scat backs and good guys in the program, but when you have a power back who just wears that defense down, you could see late in the game, those guys really didn’t want to tackle him because he runs so hard every down.”
And, Alston implied, there’s more to come.
“When Dustin comes back it will be a third element to the run game,” he said. “We opened up some eyes to the world, but our coaches always knew we were capable of doing that.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.