MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — After Mike Leach had his Washington State quarterback attempt 70 passes in 98 plays Saturday night, it became more apparent how far Dana Holgorsen has shifted from his offensive mentor.
Let those passes keep piling up in Pullman. West Virginia has exhibited almost perfect play-calling symmetry through five games, running the ball 217 times and passing it 216. Within that balance, the Mountaineers (3-2, 1-1) are breaking with conventional tendencies. On third-and-7 against Kansas, Dreamius Smith glided for 14 yards. On a third-and-9, Rushel Shell squirted through the middle for 15.
Plays like those helped West Virginia gain 255 yards rushing, the third-most of Holgorsen’s tenure and the highest since Tavon Austin detonated against Oklahoma in 2012.
To a large extent, West Virginia is trusting its running backs in atypical circumstances thanks to the whim of a quarterback who’s entrusted to alter more plays at the line. Clint Trickett, after 13 starts, has earned the latitude to make pre-snap changes in hopes of exploiting defensive tells.
“We’ve reached a point with our offense and a fifth-year starting quarterback where we can identify what defense is trying to do and we can attack it however we want to,” Holgorsen said.
That meant West Virginia still had some Leach-like moments, such as a third-and-1 rollout pass knocked down at the feet of Eli Wellman. Then came a fourth-and-1 incompletion hung deep toward Kevin White (after Mario Alford didn’t run the screen called for the opposite side).
Yet even as he leads the Big 12 in passing at 380 yards per game, Trickett continues handing off plenty. West Virginia trails only Baylor in rushing attempts, and the transfer Shell has been the most frequent beneficiary. His 87 carries are more than twice the total of No. 2 back Wendell Smallwood.
During a 113-yard effort against Kansas, Shell carried 21 times, ripped off a season-long 28-yard run and produced a touchdown for the fourth consecutive game. He busted through initial tacklers—or eluded them completely—on seemingly every play, reminiscent of his record-smashing prep days in Hopewell, Pa.
“I like when (the coaches) keep feeding me the ball,” he said. “In high school I got used to carrying the ball like 30 or 40 times a game. I feel like I’m the type of player that plays better with more carries.”
For a breakdown of Shell’s big game and other key facets of West Virginia’s 33-14 win over the Jayhawks, check out “The Takeaway” at the top of the page.
Punt-return change? Despite Jordan Thompson muffing a punt for the second time in three games, the Mountaineers aren’t necessarily changing returners.
“If we had another guy, we’d put him in there,” said special teams coordinator Joe DeForest, whose units have been alternately horrendous and spectacular this season.
The most spectacular component, Mario Alford, owns kick-return touchdowns of 100 and 94 yards this season. While his dynamic speed is unquestioned, catching punts in traffic is a different skill than hauling in kickoffs with defenders still 30 yards away.
Alford’s only two punt returns of the year came against Towson, and both resulted in negative yardage after he gave ground while running laterally. Still, he anticipates another shot.
“I’m pretty comfortable (returning punts) and they’re probably going to put me back there soon,” he said. “It depends on how everything goes, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be back there.”