Football, Sports, WVU Sports

Justin Johnson completes West Virginia’s rushing attack that’s become a key to success

MORGANTOWN — It started with the holdover in Tony Mathis, the one running back on West Virginia’s roster with any true experience.

Then freshman CJ Donaldson was discovered, an experiment of sorts that’s seen a kid recruited as a tight end convert himself into an impactful runner.

The latest addition to the WVU ground game is Justin Johnson Jr., a sophomore who is the definition of a college athlete who has bided his time and worked his way up the totem pole.

Combined, Johnson is quick to throw out the term “three-headed monster” in describing the trio, but what they really represent is the Mountaineers’ key to victory.

Not just on Saturday on the road against Texas (2-2, 0-1 Big 12), but for the other seven games to follow.

“Me, CJ and Tony, we’re really something special,” Johnson said. “I think that’s the nature of it.”

Johnson’s climb and patience culminated into his best college performance last week against Virginia Tech, in which he came off the bench, carried the ball just 11 times, but those went for 83 yards and a touchdown.

Truth be told, it’s what he had in mind all along coming out of a major Class 8A high school in Illinois, but college sports can oftentimes bring with it a dose of reality.

“Of course, I had to wait my turn, but that’s always a story,” Johnson said. “Be patient and the blessings will come.”

What exactly do the Mountaineers (2-2, 0-1) have in their newly found three-headed monster?

If you glance over Neal Brown’s first three seasons at WVU, his team’s rushing totals jump off the page for all the wrong reasons.

The thought generally was, “Well, if WVU could just find a running game, it’s got a chance to win.”

In his fourth season, the Mountaineers’ rushing attack has suddenly become a good story. In part, because of the rapid and unexpected rise of Donaldson, but Mathis, and now Johnson, are clearly playing crucial roles, too.

“What, we’re running for 218 (per game)?” asked WVU offensive lineman James Gmiter. “I don’t think anybody expected that, and maybe we didn’t either. We rush for 218 a game, they’re going to fill the box and we’re going to pass.”

Essentially, WVU’s running game is now a big key, because the Mountaineers have one, as opposed to them constantly searching for it.

WVU is fourth in the Big 12 in rushing at 217.5 yards per game.

To put that into perspective, that’s the best number at the school since 2016, when Dana Holgorsen was still at the helm, Justin Crawford had come out of nowhere as a junior-college recruit and quarterback Skyler Howard contributed greatly to those totals as a running quarterback.

And so, the focus is switched to Saturday and Texas, which ranks seventh in the conference in rushing yards allowed at 135 per game.

In last week’s overtime loss against Texas Tech — a team ranked last in the Big 12 in rushing — the Red Raiders rushed for a season-high 148 yards.

What are the Longhorns to do against a three-headed monster?

“Like I said, we’re all going to succeed,” Johnson said. “Me, CJ and Tony, we’ve all been doing some great things and we all have our own style. At any time, we could have a breakout game. It just depends on how the defense plays us.”

“We’ll continue to use all three,” added WVU head coach Neal Brown. “Whoever has the hot hand will play more, but we’ll use all three.”

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