High School Football

Column: WVU forging identity as a 2nd-half team

West Virginia’s Wendell Smallwood made a career-high 23 carries worth 132 yards with Rushel Shell sidelined.


STILLWATER, Okla. — It was hot. Unseasonably hot. And the West Virginia players admitted they were uncomfortable and unaccustomed.

They were speaking, of course, about the indoor practice facility back in Morgantown.

It seems Dana Holgorsen made a curious move this week, preparing for the 90-degree Oklahoma heat by taking this team inside and cranking up the thermostat. All that Big 12 revenue will come in handy next month when the utility bill arrives.

Consider Holgorsen’s acclimation training a success. West Virginia whipped Oklahoma State 34-10 on a day so sweltering the fraternities and sororities fled the sun-scorched student section as soon as the homecoming halftime show was finished. All the kids really missed in the final two quarters? The home team being outscored 20-0.

WVU’s Dreamius Smith breaks a tackle on his 40-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run at Oklahoma State.

From West Virginia’s perspective, there’s a telling trend afoot. It has outscored the last three opponents 64-20 during the second half, a dramatic upturn that made the Mountaineers part of the championship chatter. After Saturday, it’s clear they are legit players in the Big 12 chase.

They strangled Oklahoma State at a place where it had won 23 of its last 25, and they did it despite leaving a starting cornerback 1,100 miles away and their leading rusher spending Saturday playing water boy.

Rushel Shell, deemed too hobbled to participate during pregame warmups, contributed nonetheless by making sure to keep fluids in his replacement, Wendell Smallwood.

“He’s a good dude,” said Smallwood. “He was on the sideline keeping my hydrated. He had his own personal water bottle.”

Smallwood needed every drop while setting career highs of 23 carries and 132 yards, and West Virginia needed every punch its running game could muster to counter OSU taking away the Trickett-to-White connection.

“We were a little bit off in the pass game,” said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. “There were some things we could have hit today that would’ve made it look a lot better.”

“Very average performance offensively, but we took care of the football, we were 50 percent on third downs and we ran the ball 5 yards a rush.”

West Virginia ran it 44 times and threw it only 30, continuing a transformation that shows Holgorsen is adaptable. (Dawson joked this week that his boss has become so engrossed with the run game that WVU only has two or three pass plays left.)

Only a few of those passes went toward Kevin White, who arrived averaging nearly 10 catches a game yet was targeted only seven times thanks Oklahoma State devoted extra manpower to his side. White finished with three catches and had a fourth negated by a holding flag.

“He look dead-legged to me,” said Holgorsen, who found fresher legs in the backfield.

West Virginia has tripped up defenses with third-and-long runs all season, but Saturday’s example was extreme—Dreamius Smith taking a third-and-19 carry for 20 yards.

First down, West Virginia. Last word, Holgorsen.

“We generally try to call plays we think will work,” he said.

Quarterback Clint Trickett played game manager during the Mountaineers’ 34-10 win in Stillwater.

And Clint Trickett, despite ranking among the nation’s passing leaders, increasingly accepts a game-manager’s role, swapping deep throws for handoffs. Asked facetiously if third-and-19 has become an obvious running down for the WVU offense, the quarterback answered unfacetiously: “When there’s seven guys playing 50 yards back, it is.”

While breaking OSU’s spirit was fun, baking in the Stillwater sun sapped the Mountaineers of their typical postgame bounce. (The home sideline benefits from shade at Boone Pickens Stadium, while the visitors’ half is an SPF nightmare. Trickett felt silly for assuming all week that Holgorsen’s practice-oven creation was a little overboard. Turns out, the game-time heat was worse.)

“We didn’t have the energy to celebrate in the locker room,” Trickett said. “We were exhausted.”

It was a temporary exhaustion, sure to be cured by a return to the cooler Appalachian environs, where next week’s game against TCU now becomes the hottest ticket in the league.

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