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Mountaineers wisely get back to running game vs. East Carolina

Jake Spavital’s tenure as West Virginia offensive got off to a controversial start. After the Mountaineers put together a 10-win season in 2016, Dana Holgorsen gave up calling plays and handed the job over to his old friend. But West Virginia’s approach against Virginia Tech left plenty of fans scratching their heads.

Spavital had quarterback Will Grier, who had not played in a game in nearly two years, throw the ball 54 times, compared to just 34 rushing attempts. To put it in comparison, last season West Virginia averaged 44 rushing attempts per game to 31 passing attempts. Yes, Grier is an upgrade from Skyler Howard, and I believe is going to be one of the best quarterbacks in the Big 12, but the strategy did not make sense last week. The environment was clearly more of a road game for West Virginia and its defense was lacking depth and could have used longer, methodical drives from its offense to get a breather.

 
Plus, the Mountaineers return the Big 12’s leading rusher in Justin Crawford and have depth at the position with Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway. Last year, West Virginia was tied for third in the Big 12 Conference averaging 5.2 yards per carry.

So on Saturday against East Carolina, the Mountaineers were pounding the ball from the get go. Last week against Virginia Tech, Justin Crawford had 13 carries for the game, this week he had 13 carries (for 110 yards) by halftime, good for 8.5 yards per carry and a couple touchdowns. Crawford finished the game with 15 carries for 118 yards.

The first half saw a perfect split with 22 carries to 22 pass attempts by Grier. West Virginia finished the game with 47 rushes to 34 pass attempts (of course this number was skewed in the second half as they went on to blow out East Carolina 56-20).

After the win, Holgorsen was asked about running the ball more and felt the need to defend his offensive coordinator, saying, “One of the reasons why I hired Jake [Spavital] is because I forgot how to throw it, because as much as we’ve been running the ball the last couple of years.” 

Considering West Virginia is 18-8 the past two seasons after going 11-14 the two seasons prior, I’m not sure why becoming a run-first team, while still using spread elements in the offense was such a bad thing.

Holgorsen did go on to admit they are nowhere close to abandoning the run, saying, “But we’re still going to run the ball. Crawford had another 100-yard game. We’ve got four backs that we feel okay about getting back there for us. So I like where it’s at.”

The head coach added, “But we forced the run [today]. We wanted to and there’s going to be times when we’re going to have to run the ball into a lot of numbers and we will have to be able to execute that.” 

 
Frankly, it sounds like the Mountaineers will be getting back to the traditionally spread offense under Holgorsen and Spavital. Last season was apparently an aberration. Maybe that was because they coaching staff simply didn’t have the faith in Skyler Howard like they do in Grier and this is the offense Holgorsen ran at Houston, Oklahoma State and West Virginia, and wants to run moving forward.

But I also believe that West Virginia’s ability to use a power running game to its benefit was something many Big 12 defenses were not used to seeing and were not as prepared for, which helped the Mountaineers. Regardless, after a tight loss to a Top 20 Virginia Tech team and a blowout of East Carolina, West Virginia still has every reason to feel good about its chances as we inch closer towards conference play.

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