MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There were plenty of reasons for West Virginia to operate as a run-first team in 2023.
The Mountaineers possess a dual-threat quarterback in Garrett Greene, consider the offensive line the strength of their team and that very well may be the only position group the coaching staff is higher on than running backs.
Ahead of Saturday’s 7 p.m. regular season finale at Baylor, the Mountaineers rank No. 5 among 133 FBS teams in rushing offense with an average of 232.9 yards per game. That leaves them less than 2 yards from being tops in the Big 12 Conference, with that distinction belonging to Central Florida at 234.1 yards. The Knights are the only Power 5 Conference team ahead of the Mountaineers, with the top three comprised of Liberty, Air Force and Jacksonville State, respectively.
“We’re becoming who I thought we would be when we made this shift with three or so games left last year,” fifth-year West Virginia head coach Neal Brown said, referencing his decision to start Greene in place of former quarterback JT Daniels. “We’re making it difficult to defend the entire field. It’s sideline to sideline. We’re splitting the defense and doing a bunch of different things off some base run plays and then vertically getting the ball downfield. It all depends on how our QB plays. Other than the Oklahoma game, his play has continued to get better and better. Other than 1 bone-headed throw the other day, he’s taking care of the football. There are things we can continue to get better at but I like where we’re heading offensively.”
In Saturday’s 42-21 win against Cincinnati that wrapped up the home portion of this year’s schedule, the Mountaineers did what they wanted to offensively for much of the matchup.
Scoring six touchdowns over the first three quarters, West Virginia rushed for five scores, including three from Greene. WVU amassed 424 rushing yards on 46 attempts against what had been a solid Bearcat run defense despite the team’s struggles.
Greene’s 154 yards on 11 carries were a career-high, though it was true freshman tailback Jahiem White that was the game’s leading rusher with 204 yards on 21 attempts.
White got his first career start in place of CJ Donaldson, who was battling an injury suffered a week earlier at Oklahoma. Donaldson still managed 20 yards on five attempts, including a 13-yard touchdown run that marked his ninth straight game with a rushing score.
Combined with a 336-yard rushing effort in a November 4 win over BYU, the Mountaineers finished with 760 rushing yards in their last two home games. The week before BYU, WVU had 286 rushing yards in a win at Central Florida. Its season low rushing total to this point is 146 yards in a loss at Penn State.
“It’s been kind of a 180,” Brown said. “This is what’s best for this team. History has proven, too, that the most effective way to win is with a dual-threat quarterback. The game has changed, too. There are some changes in the game that have pushed us to this point, too. If you ask me ten years ago if we were going to be fourth in the country in rushing, I didn’t have the vision for that.
“But we’ve recruited well on the offensive line. Our quarterback is a game-changer. We have multiple running backs that can play and our tight ends have done a nice job. The pieces we have in place right now, we’re utilizing them the best way.”
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Brown offered injury updates Monday on three notable offensive players — Donaldson, right tackle Doug Nester and right guard Brandon Yates.
Donaldson was limited and ultimately removed from the Cincinnati game in the second half, while Nester did not play a competitive snap and Yates exited early with an injury.
“We took CJ out early in the third. He didn’t practice today and won’t practice tomorrow,” Brown said. “We’ll get him going Wednesday. We’ll use Doug the same and give them a little more time to come back. I’ll know more after Wednesday’s practice, but I feel like both will be ready. We won’t play either unless they’re close to 100. CJ warmed up well, so we gave him a few carries, but as it cooled off, he kind of got stiff, so we took him out. Yates came out early in the game and he’s going through a protocol. Hopeful he’ll be back. We’ll see how the next two days go.”