MORGANTOWN — There certainly were a great number of positive things to come out of West Virginia’s narrow 33-23 loss to Alabama, the nation’s No. 2 team, in the season-opening Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta.
Clint Trickett not only played well at quarterback, completing 29 of 45 passes for 365 yards — the completions and yards both career highs — but also took a couple of hits and survived with his arm still attached to his surgically repaired shoulder.
Wide receiver Kevin White grew into the big-time receiver WVU believed he could be when it brought him in a year ago from Lackawanna Community College, making 9 catches for 143 yards and WVU’s only offensive touchdown.
“I want to be physical. I want to get all the jump balls. I want to catch every ball that comes my way,” White proclaimed following the game. “Hopefully you guys will see a lot of that this season.”
Another wide receiver, Mario Alfred, showed his game-breaking ability with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown while also latching onto five passes for 54 yards.
Then there was bandit safety Karl Joseph involving himself in 18 tackles, a ridiculous total not diminished one bit by noting that Alabama did run a healthy 82 plays.
With those things duly noted, there is one negative issue that must be addressed, a major issue that basically questions whether Dana Holgorsen’s coaching philosophy can produce teams that can consistently win and challenge for Big 12 and national titles.
See, we were all led to believe throughout the off-season that WVU’s biggest offensive weapons could be found in the depth and versatility of its running back corps, merging big runners like Pitt transfer Rushel Shell and Dreamius Smith with smaller runners like Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie, while the versatile Wendell Smallwood could do a bit of everything.
Everyone understood, of course, that the opening game against Alabama would be challenging for a running attack as the Crimson Tide annually are among the most difficult teams to run against in the nation, but what transpired was worrisome.
West Virginia rushed the ball 24 times and netted 28 rushing yards.
That is not exactly what was expected.
The 24 rushes were only one more than the Tide’s T.J. Yeldon had himself, and on one play he gained 26 yards, two more than WVU accumulated throughout the entire game.
The question is whether Holgorsen, who cut his teeth under Mike Leach and his aerial assault, believes enough in the running game to use it to take pressure off the passing game.
This is a legitimate question coming off what transpired on Saturday, for Holgorsen seemed almost stunned when he saw on the stat sheet how little and how ineffectively West Virginia ran the ball in the defeat.
WVU opened the game with Shell as the starter and ran the ball on three of the first four plays, Shell going for 7, 7 and 6 yards, all of them running to the left side. That was 20 yards, and it seemed as if Holgorsen had discovered something.
The drive wound up with a field goal and a 3-0 lead, but the next time WVU took possession of the ball it ran it just once — for minus 1 yard, a run to the right by Wendell Smallwood — while passing or trying to pass five times before punting.
What happened? Holgorsen admitted to being pleased with the way he was running the ball early.
“I don’t know if I abandoned it probably a little bit too much or they probably made some adjustments,” Holgorsen said following the game. “I thought Shell ran hard and got loose a little bit early and didn’t have as much success with that in the second half. Kind of got behind a little bit, as well, so we tried to throw the ball around a little bit probably too much.”
In the second half, Shell carried only four times for 1 yards, Smallwood once for no gain, Smith once for two yards, Garrison once for 2 yards and Trickett had three carries for minus-6 yards, with one team loss of 19 when the ball was snapped over Trickett’s head.
That’s 11 second-half carries for minus-20 overall, which is disgraceful, especially when one thinks of the history of WVU and the run. This was a school under Don Nehlen, under Rich Rodriguez and under Bill Stewart that turned out 1,000-yard rushers the way Welch’s turns out jelly.
Steve Slaton, Avon Cobourne, Pat White, Amos Zereoue, Noel Devine and Quincy Wilson — all of them 1,000-yard rushers.
Holgorsen has one 1,000-yard rusher in three years, and that was Charles Sims, who became a 1,000-yard rusher almost by default because of the quarterback problems the team had last season.
Why is running the ball so important at West Virginia?
In part, it’s an image thing within the state. This is a coal mining state. It is a state that views itself in a hard-hat-carrying-a-pickax demeanor, a state that isn’t into finesse football, a state where Wes Ours and Owen Schmitt can become hard-core heroes.
You run the ball you are being aggressive, being macho. Everyone feels good about himself in the running game — including the quarterback, who knows the better the team runs, the more defense must do to stop it, meaning less blitzes, less doubling receivers, making his job easier.
Holgorsen understands what transpired in the Alabama game on the ground was unacceptable.
“I will reevaluate that as I do every game from what the play-calling aspect was, and they’re tough to run the ball against,” Holgorsen said. “We knew that, so we weren’t going to just sit there and run it into the teeth of their defense if it wasn’t very successful. So we’ll reevaluate it and see.”
They say you have to learn to walk before you can run, but in football you have to learn to run before you can win.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel