MORGANTOWN, W.Va – West Virginia’s success in the ground game and its ability to stop it on the other side played a big part in its 33-10 win over Virginia Tech.
The Mountaineers rushed for 218 yards while limiting the Hokies to just 35. After that performance, they jumped inside the top 25 in two categories – rushing offense (No. 20) and rushing defense (No. 25).
WVU is one of five Power 5 programs to be inside the top 25 in both.
In three of its four contests, WVU held its opponent under 100 rushing yards. Kansas was the only squad to eclipse that mark against defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley’s group, racking up 200 rushing yards. The total against Virginia Tech is the lowest WVU allowed this season.
“I thought we played to what we were capable of playing,” Lesley said. “That’s at least our expectation as coaches for the guys. Consistency is key for this group.”
On the other side of the ball, the Mountaineers’ three-headed monster is proving to be just as tough as advertised.
Freshman CJ Donaldson has eclipsed 100 yards in all but one game this season. He ranks No. 4 in the Big 12 Conference with 380 yards on 52 attempts. He also has six rushing touchdowns — one behind Texas’s Bijan Robinson, who leads the league.
“CJ’s given a spark to that room and his production has been really impressive, especially being as young as he is with a big load coming at him,” Harrell said. “He’s not a fun guy to tackle so if you just give it to him, sooner or later he’s going to split a couple just because you get tired of running into 240 pounds over and over again.”
Donaldson, Tony Mathis Jr., and Justin Johnson Jr. have effectively split the load in every game. Their ability to always go forward has helped WVU’s rushing attack. The trio has lost just a combined 11 yards through four games.
“When you get positive yards every time you call it, you continue to do it. The other night, especially in the second half, I felt like we had them fatigued and were doing good things in the run game and just stuck with it and rushed the ball really effectively,” Harrell said. “Sometimes people get too caught up in stats and put stats above winning. At the end of the day, you have to find a way to win the game, and if running the ball is going to give us the best chance to win then we are going to run the football.”
Limited negative runs are also a credit to the work the offensive line has put in this season. The coaches have noted the blocking ability of tight ends and receivers Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Kaden Prather for helping the cause, too.
As offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said, the ground game has been a total team effort.
Harrell added there will also be days when throwing it on every down is the recipe to a win, and if that’s what the game calls for, then that’s what his offense will do.
JT Daniels at quarterback gives Harrell increased confidence in the passing attack, but his knowledge of the game has made him just as valuable when it comes to handing it off.
“We’re going to do whatever we think gives us the best chance to win, kind of get into a game, feel it out, see what’s working and stick with it. That’s another thing about JT. The other night, I forget when it was but I asked him over the headset if he wanted to throw something and he was like ‘well, we are running it pretty well’ so we called a run play. He may be the only quarterback I’ve asked if they wanted to throw something and he said to run it,” Harrell said.
“He understands things and can get you into good runs when you are in a bad one. It’s a team effort. The nice thing is we’ve got enough guys where we feel like if we need to we can throw it win or we can run it and win.”
West Virginia ranks No. 3 in the Big 12 in rushing defense and No. 4 in rushing offense. Its next opponent Texas checks in at No. 7 in both categories. The two will clash in Austin on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. on FS1.