MORGANTOWN — Without starting quarterback Garrett Greene last Saturday, just about every one of the 61,000 people inside Milan Puskar Stadium knew what West Virginia was going to do with the football — hand it off to CJ Donaldson.
The powerful sophomore running back carried the ball 18 times in the Mountaineers’ 17-6 victory. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry despite Pitt basically knowing that Donaldson was getting the ball on almost every play.
So how did he manage to rack up 102 yards and score a crucial second-half touchdown?
“Have you seen my front five? They have to stop them first,” said Donaldson, referring to WVU’s offensive line. “All I have to do is run behind my front five and I’m going to get that extra yard. I love running behind that front five, they’re like the Great Wall of China.”
Or the Great Wall of Morgantown, perhaps.
Those front five — left to right, Wyatt Milum, Tomas Rimac, Zach Frazier, Brandon Yates and Doug Nester — have been the lifeblood of WVU’s offense so far this season. Even when factoring in lost sack yardage, the Mountaineers are averaging 4.3 yards per carry and just over 200 rushing yards per game (200.3) through three games.
“Great teams do what it is they do even though teams know that’s what they’ve got to do to win ballgames,” offensive coordinator Chad Scott said. “When we lost Garrett, they had a pretty good idea that we weren’t going to be able to pass the ball as much as we wanted to and we were still able to control the clock, win down in the trenches, run the football and be effective running the football. That’s what good teams do.”
WVU ran the ball 51 times against Pitt, compared to just 11 pass attempts, and still managed 151 yards on the ground.
“It was like running against a goal-line defense every single time,” Scott said. “For (Donaldson) to be able to find yards beyond what was blocked is really good.”
Teams know what’s coming, too. The Mountaineers are running the ball twice as much as they’re passing it through three games — 140 runs to 70 passes.
“They’re going to come out and they’re going to run the football,” said Texas Tech coach Joey McGuire, who will face WVU this Saturday (3:30 p.m./ESPN+). “They’re going to run the football and whenever you think they’re going to pass the ball, they’re going to run the football again.”
At its current pace, WVU would finish with over 2,400 rushing yards this season, its most since 2016.
Building up the offensive line has been a years-long project for Scott, head coach Neal Brown and offensive line coach Matt Moore, who all came to WVU in 2019. Four of the five starters were recruited and developed in-house, and Nester transferred in after only two seasons at Virginia Tech. Four of the five are in their third year as full-time starters.
“We were all pretty young when we first started and I just think that has helped a lot,” Nester said. “Being able to develop and grow as those young players until now we’re in our third season has been fantastic.
“Playing next to somebody you’re been playing with for years, it’s easy to know how they’re going to play a certain play or what their technique is like.”
The group is anchored by Frazier, a preseason All-American, at center with Nester and Milum as all-conference-caliber tackles.
The more WVU continues to run the ball this season, the more teams will expect it, but Nester said the offensive line welcomes the challenge.
“There’s nothing better than being able to run the ball even though they know you’re running the ball,” Nester said. “I think it’s the best feeling in the world when they’re loading the box and we’re still able to produce yardage.”
WVU is third in the Big 12 in rushing attempts, just three behind leader Cincinnati, and Texas Tech is in the bottom half of Big 12 defenses in both yards per carry (3.9) and yards per game (143).
WVU only averaged 2.8 yards per carry in a 48-10 loss to the Red Raiders last season. Scott said a big part of that dismal performance was the offensive line not executing, something they hope to change on Saturday.
“When I say not executing, it was not being able to control the trenches like we did last week. Not being able to even pitch and catch it,” Scott said. “They know (they have to be better), they absolutely know it.”