Football, Local Sports, WVU Sports

Rushing success a bright spot for WVU this season

MORGANTOWN — The prevailing sentiment surrounding the 2022 WVU football season has undoubtedly been disappointment. One area where the Mountaineers have been anything but, however, has been running the football.

An area of focus for coach Neal Brown entering the year, the Mountaineers have run the ball with a high level of success throughout the season using a whole stable of running backs. With 192 yards against Oklahoma State in the season finale Saturday (noon, ESPN2) WVU could surpass 2,000 rushing yards for the first time since rushing for 2,969 in 2016.

All four of the main running backs WVU has used this season — CJ Donaldson, Tony Mathis, Justin Johnson and Jaylen Anderson — have flashed ability this year with all four maintaining a yards-per-carry average above 4.4.

“(Position coach) Chad (Scott) does a really good job coaching those guys,” Brown said. “In any room that you’ve got competition, you tend to get better. And that’s a room that has a lot of competition.”

Donaldson, a freshman converted tight end, was the first to grab the spotlight. He used his 6-2, 240-pound frame to rumble for 125 yards and a touchdown in the season-opener against Pittsburgh. In WVU’s first four games, Donaldson ran for 380 yards and six scores. 

When Donaldson went down at Texas and missed some time, Mathis broke out with 163 yards and two touchdowns in a 43-40 win over Baylor. Johnson ran for a season-high 83 yards in a 33-10 win over Virginia Tech and Anderson was the latest back to impress, rushing for 69 yards on just seven carries last week against Kansas State.

“Jaylen’s a kid with a whole lot of talent,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “I think from when he got here to now, like with most people going from high school to college, he just had to grow up a little bit. I think knowing he was going to have an opportunity to get some reps helped him grow up in a hurry.”

While all four backs have shown some obvious ability, they like would not have gotten very far without the blockers in front of them this season, a group Brown made certainty to highlight.

“We’ve got one of the better offensive lines in our league,” Brown said. “If you look at some of our rushing marks, we’re up there against some of the better people of being able to run the ball versus our better defenses, which was kind of our goal coming into the year.

“And I think that (tight ends Brian) Polendey and Treylan Davis are quietly having really good years blocking. They’re always kind of undervalued, but they’re a big piece of it.”

WVU has topped the century mark in rushing eight times this season, including against tough opponents such as Baylor (217), TCU (155), Oklahoma (203) and Kansas State (153). The Mountaineers have rushed for more than 200 yards in all four of their wins this season.

Donaldson, who missed the last third of the season with an injury, finished the year with 526 yards and eight touchdowns. Mathis, who has been limited with a nagging injury, is up to 549 and five scores with one game left.

Johnson and Anderson, both underclassmen, got the bulk of the work against Kansas State and that could be the case again heading into Saturday. If so, it will be one final chance this season to see a couple of young Mountaineers show their potential. Especially Anderson, who only has 21 touches this season but is raved about by coaches for his ability.

“I’ve stood up here for two years and talked about how talented (Anderson) is and that he’s just got to put it together and now you’re seeing that,” Brown said.

“He’s always been good with the football in his hand,” Graham added. “As long as he’s been here, I’m sure that’s not been hard to see. When he has the football in his hands, he has a pretty good skill set. 

“A skill set that can make you miss, can catch the ball out of the backfield and if he can get the tough yards, you’ll have a pretty special player.”

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