MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — WVU’s ground attack will face a tough challenge on Thursday when it plays Baylor.
Punching through the Bears’ rushing defense, which is the second-best in the Big 12, is tough enough by itself. For the first time this season, though, WVU will have to do it without CJ Donaldson, the team’s top rusher, as he recovers from a concussion.
“The side effects of having a positive run game are you can hit more explosive plays, and so that’s something that we didn’t do as good a job of at Texas, and so we need to get the run game going,” said WVU coach Neal Brown. “We’ve got a chance to be really good on offense, and the expectation is that we need to be really good each and every week.”
Donaldson has been crucial to the WVU offense from his debut game against Pitt. He is a big reason why the Mountaineers, who have been pass-heavy since Neal Brown took over in 2019, have nearly balanced their offensive production between the air and ground.
WVU will need to replace Donaldson’s 56 carries on the season, a tally that accounts for 29.2 percent of the Mountaineers’ rushing touches. Fortunately, it won’t be too difficult as the squad has run its ground game by committee this season.
“We’ve been playing three running backs and now we go into it, we’re going to play two,” Brown said.
The two backs in question will be Tony Mathis Jr. and Justin Johnson Jr., a duo that already took a large share of the carries before Donaldson’s injury.
While Donaldson has led the team in production, Mathis has been WVU’s primary tailback on the depth chart this season. He leads WVU with 70 touches this season and has a total of 309 yards with three touchdowns.
Donaldson’s breakout campaign has overshadowed another strong start for Johnson, who has 187 yards on the season. He was an important player for WVU in the Battle for the Black Diamond Trophy, recording his first touchdown on an 83-yard night.
A week later, Johnson led the lackluster WVU offense with 42 rushing yards against Texas.
If one of those two needs to leave the game, WVU will have Jaylen Anderson as a reinforcement. The redshirt freshman has played just a little this season, carrying the ball six yards for 33 yards.
“We’ll go in with Justin and Tony,” Brown said. “If we have an injury within the game, Jaylen will be third.”