MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When West Virginia tries to snap a four-game losing streak to Texas Tech on Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium, the Mountaineers’ defense will be out to show their effort in last week’s 17-6 win over Pitt was more a sign of the unit’s improvement than the Panthers’ offensive struggles.
That will be no easy task against the Red Raiders, which have boasted some of college football’s most explosive and productive offenses through the years.
While Texas Tech rarely struggles passing and the Mountaineers had difficulty defending the pass over their first two games, it’s running back Tahj Brooks that’s garnering no shortage of attention from West Virginia.
“Nobody talks about the running back,” fifth-year WVU head coach Neal Brown said, “but he’s going to be an NFL player and he’s going to play in the league for a long time. He can pass protect, run inside and outside.”
Brooks has previously been successful against the Mountaineers, including in last season’s matchup when he rushed for 107 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries to help the Red Raiders have their way in a 48-10 victory.
He also rushed for 44 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman in the 2020 meeting. Brooks missed the 2021 matchup with WVU due to an injury that limited him to playing in nine of 13 games.
Thus far in 2023, Brooks has largely picked up where he left off to finish last season, when he finished with 691 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.
Brooks has totaled 268 yards on an average of nearly 7.3 yards per carry through the first three games of his senior campaign. In last week’s 41-3 win over Tarleton State of the FCS, Brooks rushed for a career-best 158 yards on career-high 19 carries. It marked the fifth 100-yard effort of Brooks’ career.
His 268 rushing yards are tied for 29th best among all FBS players, while Brooks’ yards-per carry is 11th among all FBS players with at least 30 rushing attempts.
“He’s one of our best players right now and we’re running the football well, so I definitely think you have to continue that,” Texas Tech head coach Joey McGuire said. “He’s hot, healthy and he feels great. He has a lot of confidence.“
Brooks has gained at least 10 yards on seven carries. He has three runs of 20-plus yards and two of at least 30 yards.
For comparison’s sake, West Virginia’s top rusher is tailback CJ Donaldson, who has six runs of at least 10 yards, but has yet to gain 20 yards on a carry this season.
Brooks’ production helps provide balance to a Red Raiders’ offense that’s recording just north of 271 passing yards and 166 rushing yards per contest.
The Red Raiders thrive on tempo, which has given WVU problems in past matchups and can allow Brooks to impose his will while developing rhythm in a hurry.
“One thing I love about our offense, if that’s what you’re going to give us, that’s what we’re going to take,” McGuire said. “Our guys have the ability to check us into run plays to really get us going.”
West Virginia’s rush defense has been solid over its first three games and is surrendering 93 yards on average on the ground.
That number is skewed from the dominance against Duquesne in which the Dukes had 28 rushes for 3 yards, but the Mountaineers have also held their own against powerful rushing attacks from Penn State and Pitt. In those two games, WVU allowed 276 rushing yards on 71 attempts.
Pitt managed 67 rushing yards on its opening series in Morgantown, but gained only 63 the remainder of the matchup.
“You can see from last year to this year, the improvements on defense,” McGuire said. “They’re playing really on defense and the numbers show it.”
After carrying it a total of 17 times in the Red Raiders’ losses at Wyoming and against Oregon to start 2023, it’s safe to assume a heavier dose of Brooks in Morgantown.
While that may not mean matching last week’s total of 19 carries, through his combination of size and speed, the 5-foot-10, 230-pound Brooks is sure to provide a unique challenge.
“They’re still throwing the ball more than they’re running it, but the running back is special,” Brown said. “They’re going to try to get him touches. He’s probably the best player in our league that nobody talks about. He’s right up there at the top of our league for running backs. He’s really productive. I was telling our defensive staff [Sunday] that I think he’s the best player in our league that nobody talks about.”